Why do electric fishes swim backwards? An hypothesis based on gymnotiform foraging behavior interpreted through sensory constraints

Michael J. Lannoo, Susan Johnson Lannoo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

44 Scopus citations


Fishes producing high-frequency wavelike electrical discharges maintain a relatively rigid body axis and swim forwards and backwards with equal ease. Using stop-action videotape filming we have observed the gymnotiform Apteronotus albifrons feeding on zooplankton and oligochaete annelids. Here it is reported that reverse swimming is characteristic of two foraging behaviors: searching for prey and assessing it. In assessing a potential prey item, fish typically scan it from tail to head by swimming backwards, then ingest it after a short forward lunge. A scan in the opposite direction-from head to tail by forward swimming-would have the prey located near the tail and out of position for the final lunge. Food choice experiments indicate that these electrosensing fish feed equally well, and take larger rather than smaller zooplankton, under light and dark conditions. Furthermore, electric fish take normal (light) colored and darkened prey (Daphnia) in a 50: 50 ratio under both dark and light conditions. These results are consistent with the interpretation that electrosensory cues are being used to detect zooplankton and other prey. Together, our observations support Lissmann's (1958, 1974) and Lissmann & Machin's (1958) assertion that backwards swimming is a component of a locomotory pattern guided by the constraints produced by an active electrical sense.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)157-165
Number of pages9
JournalEnvironmental Biology of Fishes
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 1993



  • Apteronotus albifrons
  • Electrosensation
  • Gymnotiform swimming mode
  • Locomotion

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics

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