Stochastic resonance is the phenomenon whereby the addition of an optimal level of noise to a weak information-carrying input to certain nonlinear systems can enhance the information content at their outputs1,2,3,4. Computer analysis of spike trains has been needed to reveal stochastic resonance in the responses of sensory receptors5,6,7 except for one study on human psychophysics8. But is an animal aware of, and can it make use of, the enhanced sensory information from stochastic resonance? Here, we show that stochastic resonance enhances the normal feeding behaviour of paddlefish (Polyodon spathula)9,10, which use passive electroreceptors11,12 to detect electrical signals from planktonic prey13. We demonstrate significant broadening of the spatial range for the detection of plankton when a noisy electric field of optimal amplitude is applied in the water. We also show that swarms of Daphnia plankton are a natural source of electrical noise. Our demonstration of stochastic resonance at the level of a vital animal behaviour, feeding, which has probably evolved for functional success, provides evidence that stochastic resonance in sensory nervous systems is an evolutionary adaptation14.
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This work was supported by the US Office of Naval Research, Physics Division (F.M.) and by the Whitehall Foundation (D.F.R.). Paddlefish were provided by the Missouri Department of Conservation. E. Wagner participated in preliminary experiments. We thank B. Wettring, A. Tucker, J. Bingaman, N. Tafra and D. Prescott for measuring the video data and culturing Daphnia, A. Fields for fish maintenance, W. Garver for constructing the plankton counter, and G. V. Welland, A. Neiman, J. Twitty and K. Dolan for suggestions. D.F.R. conceived of and designed the noise experiments, and carried them out and wrote the paper with F.M, who designed the analysis of Fig. 4. L.A.W. originated the paddlefish project here, the swim mill, and the scatterplot analysis.
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