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Detection of weak electric fields by sharks, rays, and skates
Adair RK, Astumian RD, Weaver JC
Chaos, 8: (3) 576-587 SEP 1998

The elasmobranchs-sharks, rays, and skates-can detect very weak electric fields in their aqueous environment through a complex sensory system, the ampullae of Lorenzini. The ampullae are conducting tubes that connect the surface of the animal to its interior. In the presence of an electric field, the potential of the surface of the animal will differ from that of the interior and that potential is applied across the apical membrane of the special sensory cells that line the ampullae. The firing rate of the afferent neurons that transmit signals from the ampullae has been shown to vary with that potential. We show that those firing rates can be described quantitatively in terms of synchronous firing of the sensory cells that feed the neurons. We demonstrate that such synchronism follows naturally from a hypothetical weak cell-to-cell interaction that results in a self-organization of the sensory cells. Moreover, the pulse rates of those cells-and the neurons that service the cells-can be expected to vary with the imposed electric fields in accord with measured values through actions of voltage gated transmembrane proteins in the apical sector of the cell membranes that admit Ca++ ions. We also present a more conjectural model of signal processing at the neuron level that could exploit small differences in firing rates of nerve fibers servicing different ampullae to send an unambiguous signal to the central nervous system of the animal.

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