Phylogenetic analysis of the South American electric fishes (order Gymnotiformes) and the evolution of their electrogenic system: A synthesis based on morphology, electrophysiology, and mitochondrial sequence data

José A. Alves-Gomes, Guillermo Ortí, Margo Haygood, Walter Heiligenberg, Axel Meyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

157 Scopus citations


The order Gymnotiformes (South American electric fishes) is a fascinating assemblage of freshwater fishes that share the unusual ability to produce and sense electric fields used for electrolocation and social communication. In the last few decades, the electrogenic and electrosensory systems (EES) of these fish have served as an excellent model to study motor and sensory physiology in vertebrates. In an attempt to address the evolution of characters associated with the EES in the group, we applied maximum-parsimony (MP), minimum-evolution (ME), and maximum-likelihood (ML) methods to analyze 302 aligned bases of the mitochondrial 12S rRNA and 416 bases of the mitochondrial 16S rRNA of 19 gymnotiform genera representing all six recognized families. Six catfish genera (order Siluriformes) were also sequenced and used as outgroups. The phylogenetic hypothesis resultant from molecular data analysis differs in some respects from previous hypotheses based on morphological studies. Our results were most informative within the family level, as we were unable to elucidate the relationships among deeper branches in this order with sufficient confidence by using molecular data alone. The phylogenetic information of both mitochondrial DNA segments appears to be affected by functional constraints, and the resultant topologies were sensitive to different weighting schemes and the algorithm used. Nonetheless, we found unanimous support for the following phylogenetic relationships: (1) the family Sternopygidae is an unnatural group, and Slernopygus is the sole representative of a unique lineage within the order; (2) the family Hypopomidae is not monophyletic; and (3) the order Gymnotiformes is composed of at least six natural clades: Sternopygus. family Apteronotidae, a new clade consisting of the remaining sternopygids, families Hypopomidae + Rhamphichthyidae, family Electrophoridae, and family Gymnotidae. By combining molecular, morphological, and physiological information, we propose a new hypothesis for the phylogeny of this group and suggest a new family Eigenmanniidae n. (order Gymnotiformes).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)298-318
Number of pages21
JournalMolecular Biology and Evolution
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 1995
Externally publishedYes



  • 12S rRNA
  • 16S rRNA
  • Electrogenic and electrosensory systems
  • Gymnotiformes
  • Mitochondrial DNA
  • Phylogeny
  • South American electric fish

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Biochemistry
  • Genetics
  • Molecular Biology
  • Genetics(clinical)

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