Derived loss of signal complexity and plasticity in a genus of weakly electric fish.
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Signal plasticity can maximize the usefulness of costly animal signals such as the electric organ discharges (EODs) of weakly electric fishes. Some species of the order Gymnotiformes rapidly alter their EOD amplitude and duration in response to circadian cues and social stimuli. How this plasticity is maintained across related species with different degrees of signal complexity is poorly understood. In one genus of weakly electric gymnotiform fish (Brachyhypopomus), only one species, B. bennetti, produces a monophasic signal while all other species emit complex biphasic or multiphasic EOD waveforms produced by two overlapping but asynchronous action potentials in each electric organ cell (electrocyte). One consequence of this signal complexity is the suppression of low-frequency signal content that is detectable by electroreceptive predators. In complex EODs, reduction of the EOD amplitude and duration during daytime inactivity can decrease both predation risk and the metabolic cost of EOD generation. We compared EOD plasticity and its underlying physiology in Brachyhypopomus focusing on B. bennetti. We found that B. bennetti exhibits minimal EOD plasticity, but that its electrocytes retained vestigial mechanisms of biphasic signaling and vestigial mechanisms for modulating the EOD amplitude. These results suggest that this species represents a transitional phenotypic state within a clade where signal complexity and plasticity were initially gained and then lost. Signal mimicry, mate recognition and sexual selection are potential factors maintaining the monophasic EOD phenotype in the face of detection by electroreceptive predators.