Passive electroreception in aquatic mammals.
Passive electroreception is a sensory modality in many aquatic vertebrates, predominantly fishes. Using passive electroreception, the animal can detect and analyze electric fields in its environment. Most electric fields in the environment are of biogenic origin, often produced by prey items. These electric fields can be relatively strong and can be a highly valuable source of information for a predator, as underlined by the fact that electroreception has evolved multiple times independently. The only mammals that possess electroreception are the platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) and the echidnas (Tachyglossidae) from the monotreme order, and, recently discovered, the Guiana dolphin (Sotalia guianensis) from the cetacean order. Here we review the morphology, function and origin of the electroreceptors in the two aquatic species, the platypus and the Guiana dolphin. The morphology shows certain similarities, also similar to ampullary electroreceptors in fishes, that provide cues for the search for electroreceptors in more vertebrate and invertebrate species. The function of these organs appears to be very similar. Both species search for prey animals in low-visibility conditions or while digging in the substrate, and sensory thresholds are within one order of magnitude. The electroreceptors in both species are innervated by the trigeminal nerve. The origin of the accessory structures, however, is completely different; electroreceptors in the platypus have developed from skin glands, in the Guiana dolphin, from the vibrissal system.