The snout of a great white shark detects minute electrical currents produced by prey using electrosensitive organs called ampullae of Lorenzini.

All living organisms generate electric fields around their bodies, but only some organisms are able to sense them. The Elasmobranchii, which includes sharks, rays, and skates, is one group of animals that possesses electroreceptors enabling them to detect electric fields. These fishes use their ability to perceive electric stimuli to hone in on live prey, after their senses of smell and sight have aided them in the initial search.

An elasmobranch electroreceptor, also called an ampulla of Lorenzini (named after the scientist who first described them), consists of a tubular, insulated canal connecting a pore on the surface of the skin to an internal round sac (ampulla). The canal and ampulla are filled with a gel that readily conducts electric currents from the water outside the pore to receptor cells within the wall of the ampulla. These receptor cells are stimulated by the electric current and send signals via nerves to the brain, which integrates the signals arriving from different activated receptors to generate a whole “picture” of the external electric field.

Ampullae of Lorenzini are found around the head in sharks and on the surfaces of the expanded pectoral fins in skates and rays. The pores are visible to the naked eye on the surface of the skin, appearing as small dots.

Learn more about how the ampullae of Lorenzini work in sharks and other elasmobranch fishes in this video by KQED Deep Look.

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Last Updated October 6, 2017