In the course of designing fictional species I often find myself wishing to use exotic senses which we humans lack. This poses a unique and interesting challenge as without possessing the sense myself I find it very difficult to understand what they can perceive. For the same reasons one can’t describe a color to a blind person or a sound to a deaf person I don’t expect an explanation of what this sense feels like, but rather what it is capable of.
Electrolocation is the ability to detect nearby electrical fields. It is observed primarily in fish as water is much more conductive than air. It comes in two different forms, passive and active.
Fish possessing passive electrolocation are capable of detecting the weak electrical fields that all animals produce by the action of their muscles and nerves.
In active electrolocation, however, fish produce their own electric field which allows them to detect differences in conductance and capacitance in their surroundings.
In order to make the question more answerable let’s focus on active electrolocation. My question is what is an organism possessing this sense actually able to perceive? I'll provide some example questions but don't feel the need to answer them all or limit your answers to them.
- Can they distinguish between size, distance, and magnitude of distortion?
- How precise is this directional sense and can it work in all directions?
- Are there any blind spots to the sense such as the poles of the generated electrical field?
- What substances would block the sense?
- Can it penetrate insulating materials?
As further guidelines for what I’m asking for, I’ll give an example. If I were asked to describe the capabilities of our sense of hearing I could say that we can distinguish a wide range of frequencies from each other although frequencies too high or too low are imperceptible to us. We can roughly determine the distance and direction of the source of a sound as long as it isn’t straight in front of or behind us. We have difficulty hearing through insulating materials and we can hear sounds reflected off of other objects which may confuse our sense of direction. I’m asking for an equivalent description of the active electrolocation sense.