Stefano Lorenzini was an Italian physician born in Florence in 1652. One of his teachers at the medical school in Pisa was Francesco Redi who as well as being a physician spent time experimenting to prove that spontaneous generation (life just appears) was a myth, mostly with maggots and flies. As part of his work Redi, like all scientists of a time without cameras, made incredibly detailed anatomical drawings. Redi inspired Lorenzini, who in 1678 published the work that he is best remembered for, an in-depth study on the anatomy and physiology of sharks. This work contained the discovery of the Ampullae of Lorenzini, the special electromagnetic sense organs found in sharks and rays. But although Lorenzini described and drew the Ampullae, it would take nearly 300 years before modern science could explain how sharks had an additional sensory organ not seen in most other animals.
The Ampullae of Lorenzini form a network of jelly filled canals that open in small pores through the surface of the skin which can be seen as dark spots on the skin. At the back end of the canal is a collection of receptor cells that have a unique structure and allow the shark to sense electric and magnetic fields. The gel in the canals is keratan sulfate which has one of the highest known conductivity of any known biological material (about 1.8 milliSiemens/cm). The ampullae are clustered and each cluster connects to a different part of the skin, so the shark can get detailed directional information from this network.
The cells that actually detect the electrical field have a very special structure. There is a single layer of excitable cells closely packed together. The membrane of these cells facing into the canal is packed with voltage dependent calcium channel proteins. The rest of the canal lining has a very high resistance, which means that any voltage difference is effectively concentrated on the electroreceptor cells. A change in the electric field in the jelly allows these proteins to open and calcium floods into the cells. This causes the other side of the cell (away from the canal) to release neurotransmitter signalling to the shark.
Sharks have been shown to be more sensitive to electric fields than any other animal, possibly as low as 5 nanoVolts/cm – that’s 5/1,000,000,000 of a volt detected in a 1cm long ampulla. All living creatures produce an electric field by muscle contractions and as a result of the internal body chemistry. So being able to detect weak electrical stimuli probably allows sharks to hunt prey animals, including those buried in sand. Basking sharks have been observed swerving around jellyfish whilst feeding, after all the last thing you’d want clogging up your gill rakers would be lots of jellyfish and their stinging nematocysts.
It’s likely that the Ampullae of Lorenzini also allow sharks to sense magnetic fields. Any moving conductor will induce an electric field, so seawater moving on ocean currents, with the Earth’s magnetic field will produce electric fields well within the range that sharks can detect. Behavioural studies have shown that magnetic fields can change the behaviour of sharks. The ability to sense and orientate along magnetic field lines may help explain some of the large distance migrations that have been found using shark tagging experiments. Great white sharks have been shown to migrate over 2000 miles in open ocean to feeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean. Whale sharks have been tracked on journeys over 4800 miles. That is an astonishing figure considering that they don’t have sat nav guiding the way! So next time you’re up close and personal with any shark or ray, have a look for the black dots around their snout and remember that 340 years ago an Italian doctor and fish fanatic spotted the same thing.
Michelle has been scuba diving for nearly 30 years. Drawing on her science background she tackles some bits of marine science. and sometimes has a sideways glance at the people and events that she encounters in the diving world.