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Phylogenetic and ecological factors influencing the number and distribution of electroreceptors in elasmobranchs


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Electroreception is found throughout the animal kingdom from invertebrates to mammals and has been shown to play an important role in prey detection, facilitating social behaviours, the detection of predators and orientation to the earth's magnetic field for navigation. Electroreceptors in elasmobranchs, the ampullae of Lorenzini, detect minute electric fields and independently process these stimuli, thereby providing spatial information to the central nervous system on the location of a source, often potential prey. The ampullae of Lorenzini are individually connected to a single somatic pore on the surface of the skin, with the spatial separation of each pore directly influencing how electrical stimuli are detected and processed. Pore abundance varies across taxonomic groups resulting in unique species-specific differences. The intricate distribution patterns created by the specific positioning of somatic pores on the head are, however, consistent within families, resulting in patterns that are identifiable at higher taxonomic levels. As elasmobranchs evolved, the electrosensory system became more complex and highly specialized, which is evident by a general trend of increasing pore abundance over time. The elasmobranch electrosensory system has evolved to operate efficiently under the environmental conditions of the particular habitat in which a species lives. For example, reduced pore abundance is evident in oceanic pelagic elasmobranchs, for whom visual cues are thought to be of great importance. Pore abundance and spatial distribution may be influenced by multiple factors including head morphology, phylogeny, feeding behaviour and habitat.