Nelson Lab - Background

This area provides general background information related to our research. Use the navigation menu to the left, or follow the links below for more info.

Neuroethology is a field of study that seeks to explain how the brain controls the natural behavior of animals. Neuroethology has its roots in two separate disciplines: neuroscience and ethology. Neuroscience focuses on understanding the behavior and interactions of nerve cells, while ethology focuses on understanding the behavior and interactions of animals in their natural environment. Neuroethology is an integrative approach that bridges across multiple levels of biological organization.

Electric Fish are amazing animals that have the ability to generate and perceive electric fields. Strongly electric fish, like electric eels and torpedo rays, are well-known to most people. Our lab studies a more obscure group of animals called weakly electric fish. These nocturnal freshwater fish from South America and Africa generate an electric field that is far too weak to stun prey or ward off predators. Nevertheless, the electric field is quite useful to the animal because it enables the fish to "see"  in the dark using an electric sense.

Electrolocation refers to the ability of weakly electric fish to detect and localize objects in their environment using the electric sense. Like echolocation in bats and dolphins, electrolocation is considered an active sense because the animal actively emits energy into the environment (electric energy for electrolocation, sound energy for echolocation). Weakly electric fish use electrolocation to navigate and to hunt for prey at night in tropical rivers. Our research is focused on understanding the neuroethology of electrolocation in weakly electric fish.