Early life sensory ability—ventilatory responses of thornback ray embryos (Raja clavata) to predator-type electric fields

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Abstract

Predator avoidance is fundamental for survival and it can be particularly challenging for prey animals if physical movement away from a predatory threat is restricted. Many sharks and rays begin life within an egg capsule that is attached to the sea bed. The vulnerability of this sedentary life stage is exacerbated in skates (Rajidae) as the compulsory ventilatory activity of embryos makes them conspicuous to potential predators. Embryos can reduce this risk by mediating ventilatory activity if they detect the presence of a predator using an acute electrosense. To determine how early in embryonic life predator elicited behavioral responses can occur, the reactions of three different age groups (1/3 developed, 2/3 developed, and near hatching) of embryonic thornback raysRaja clavatawere tested using predator-type electric field stimuli. Egg capsules were exposed to continuous or intermittent stimuli in order to assess varying predator-type encounter scenarios on the ventilatory behavior of different developmental stages. All embryos reacted with a “freeze response” following initial electric field (E-field) exposure, ceasing ventilatory behavior in response to predator presence, demonstrating electroreceptive functionality for the first time at the earliest possible stage in ontogeny. This ability coincided with the onset of egg ventilatory behavior and may represent an effective means to enhance survival. A continuous application of stimuli over time revealed that embryos can adapt their behavior and resume normal activity, whereas when presented intermittently, the E-field resulted in a significant reduction in overall ventilatory activity across all ages. Recovery from stimuli was significantly quicker in older embryos, potentially indicative of the trade-off between avoiding predation and adequate respiration. © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Develop Neurobiol 76: 721–729, 2016

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