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The Mauthner cell in a fish with top-performance and yet flexibly tuned C-starts. I. Identification and comparative morphology [RESEARCH ARTICLE]

Peter Machnik, Kathrin Leupolz, Sabine Feyl, Wolfram Schulze, and Stefan Schuster

Archerfish use two powerful C-starts: one to escape threats, the other to secure prey that they have downed with a shot of water. The two C-starts are kinematically equivalent and variable in both phases, and the predictive C-starts – used in hunting – are adjusted in terms of the angle of turning and the final linear speed to where and when their prey will hit the water surface. Presently, nothing is known about the neural circuits that drive the archerfish C-starts. As the starting point for a neuroethological analysis, we first explored the presence and morphology of a pair of Mauthner cells, which are key cells in the teleost fast-start system. We show that archerfish have a typical Mauthner cell in each medullary hemisphere and that these send by far the largest axons down the spinal cord. Stimulation of the spinal cord caused short-latency all-or-none field potentials that could be detected even at the surface of the medulla and that had the Mauthner cell as its only source. The archerfish’s Mauthner cell is remarkably similar morphologically to that of equally sized goldfish, except that the archerfish’s ventral dendrite is slightly longer and its lateral dendrite thinner. Our data provide the necessary starting point for the dissection of the archerfish fast-start system and of any role potentially played by its Mauthner cell in the two C-start manoeuvres. Moreover, they do not support the recently expressed view that Mauthner cells should be reduced in animals with highly variable fast-start manoeuvres.

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