With more than 200 species in 20 genera, the Family Mormyridae is a modern radiation within the Osteoglossomorpha, an ancient lineage of teleost fishes in which most other living groups are species-poor. Mormyrids are found only in Africa, in freshwater habitats over most of the continent with the exception of the Sahara, northernmost Mahgreb and southernmost Cape provinces. Mormyrids reach their highest diversity in the river systems of Central and West Africa and are often the numerically most abundant kind of fish in riverine habitats.
Humans have long appreciated mormyrid fishes as an important food source along Africa's inland waterways. Ancient Egyptians accurately depicted mormyrids on the walls of their tombs and even worshipped Mormyrus in the temple of Oxyrhynchus. However, scientists only discovered mormyrids' most unusual characteristic in the latter half of the 20th Century: an active electric sense by means of which they orient to their environment and communicate (see "Electric Organ Discharge" below). Mormyrid fishes have since become a model system for research into vertebrate sensory biology, behavior, and communication. They are also popular in the tropical fish hobby where they are known as "elephant-nose fish" and "baby whales."
Mormyrids range from about 4 centimeters to 1.5 meters in adult length and exhibit a considerable range of morphologies among, and sometimes within, recognized genera. Most species of genera Petrocephalus, Pollimyrus and Stomatorhinus are short, laterally compressed, deep-bodied fishes with blunt, rounded snouts and small, often inferior to subinferior mouths. Others, such as species of Mormyrops and Isichthys, are elongate and more cylindrical, with terminal mouths. Species of Campylomormyrus and some Mormyrops and Mormyrus have long tubular snouts used for extracting invertebrates from sediment and root masses (Marrero & Winemiller, 1993). Others in genera Marcusenius, Gnathonemus, and Genyomyrus possess a variously developed fleshy protuberance on the chin that functions in electrolocation of prey organisms. Mouths are non-protrusible. Small cycloid scales cover all but the head. The head (including the eyes), the dorsum and belly are covered by a thin layer of skin that is perforated with small pores that lead to electroreceptors. All mormyrids retain a full complement of paired and unpaired fins. The dorsal and anal fins lack spiny rays and are variable in length among the different genera. In many genera these fins are positioned far back on the body and are more or less symmetrically opposed about the midline. The caudal fin in mormyrids is deeply forked and has a distinctive rounded V-shape with symmetrical, scaled and fleshy dorsal and ventral lobes; it emerges from a narrow, cylindrical peduncle within which lies the electric organ.
In addition to specializations for electroreception which include an enlarged cerebellum, electroreceptors on the body surface, and an electric organ in the caudal peduncle, mormyrids have other specializations for acute audition: a gas-filled tympanic bladder coupled to the sacculus in each ear (Fletcher & Crawford, 2001). Males of the genus Pollimyrus, communicate not only electrically, but also acoustically, with elaborate courtship songs generated by muscles that vibrate the swim bladder (Crawford, 1997). Little is known about the role of acoustic communication in other genera.
Most mormyrids are nocturnal invertebrate-feeders. However, some species of the genus Mormyrops are piscivores. At night, Mormyrops anguilloides from Lake Malawi engage in a form of semi-cooperative "pack hunting" of sleeping cichlids (Arnegard & Carlson, 2005).
The sister-group to the Mormyridae is the monotypic family Gymnarchidae. Gymnarchus niloticus has a nilo-sudanic distribution and is also electrogenic, but its EOD resembles a continuous wave unlike like the pulsatile EODs produced by mormyrids. Together, the Mormyridae and the Gymnarchidae make up the Superfamily Mormyroidea. Gymnarchus and mormyrids share numerous anatomical characteristics—both related and unrelated to active electrolocation—and they are also the only vertebrates known to posses aflagellate sperm (Morrow, 2004).
Based on osteological characters, Taverne (1972) divided the Mormyridae into two subfamilies, the Petrocephalinae, containing only the genus Petrocephalus, and the Mormyrinae, containing the remaining genera. Molecular phylogenetic studies (Lavoué, 1999; Sullivan, 2000; Lavoué et al., 2003) have supported this division.