Science textbooks tell us that we and other forms of life have five senses--smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight. Research has now shown that some animals have a sixth sense--the electric field sense. The sensing organ in this case is called the ampullae of Lorenzini. Lorenzini was an Italian anatomist who in 1678 noted pores around the mouths of sharks and rays that led deep into the head of the animal. The material connecting the pores to the brain of the animal was filled with a crystalline gel. The word ampullae refers to a bulbous pouch which actually contained a tiny hair similar to those of the human inner ear. It was not until the 1990s that scientists finally had the technology to understand what this structure was about, and how it actually is a sixth sense.
When animal muscles contract and expand they give off a small electric field. This happens because nerves are involved in making the muscles work, and nerves carry electrical energy. The field is incredibly small, but modern equipment has given scientists the means to detect it. The shark or ray has a sensitivity in the ampullae of Lorenzini that is so good it can pick up a millionth of a volt generated in an electric field. If you take a normal AA battery and connect it to the ground between Long Island Sound and Jacksonville, Florida, the field would be a millionth of a volt and the shark could detect it. It has taken centuries for man to develop equipment that can detect such a weak field.
The shark uses the electric field to map the vicinity and detect what animals are nearby and what they are doing. An injured or dying fish will send out strong electric field impulses and the shark can find it whether it is giving off blood or not. Sharks are important to the balance of life in the sea, and they have incredible equipment designs to allow them to do this. Studies are ongoing to see what other species have ampullae of Lorenzini. This sixth sense is one more testimony to the design and intelligence built into the world in which we live. Reference: Scientific American, August 2007, page 75.
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