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Sharks’ Head Jelly is One of the Most Powerful Electro-Sensors in Nature

Warning: Some of the following images could be considered graphic and/or NSFW.

After being honed as hunting machines by natural selection for hundreds of millions of years, sharks have developed a very particular set of senses that make them a nightmare for their prey. They can sniff out a single drop of blood in gigantic ocean volumes, feel for an injured fish based on the vibrations it produces in the water, and even detect other creatures’ heart beats using organs in their heads that contain a jelly-like substance. We now know this jelly makes for the most powerful known conductor of positively charged hydrogen atoms in nature.

The Washington Post recently reported on a team of researchers, led by Marco Rolandi of UC Santa Cruz, which examined the still-pretty-mysterious jelly-like substance that fills a shark’s electro-sensing organs. Known collectively as the ampullae of Lorenzini (or AoL), the team found that it makes for the best known biological conductor of protons in existence (protons being hydrogen atoms that have lost their electrons and therefore only have single protons, giving them a positive charge).

The abstract for the research conducted by Rolandi and his team, published in Science Advances, notes that “The room-temperature proton conductivity of the AoL jelly is very high…[and] is only 40-fold lower than the current state-of-the-art proton-conducting polymer Nafion…”

The AoL as an organ is made up of pores and vesicles in the shark’s head that lead to canals full of the proton-sensing jelly. Our very own Sarah Keartes has dissected a sand tiger shark’s ampullae of Lorenzini, and provides us with some high-def, in-depth photos of the organs below:

AoL-1-05172016Close up of the vesicles and pores included in the ampullae of Lorenzini, covered in the proton-sensing jelly.

AoL-2-05172016The jelly-filled canals of the ampullae of Lorenzini.

AoL-3-05172016Pools of the proton-sensing jelly in the shark’s snout.

AoL jelly isn’t the most conductive substance we’ve ever found. For example, the Nafion that the authors mention in the paper is 40 times more conductive, but that was specially made by scientists. Shark head jelly had no designer or goal, just the unending game of trial and error that is evolution. Nature often beats us to the punch.

Now that you’ve perused these pics of a shark’s ampullae of Lorenzini, as well as pools of its proton-sensing jelly, let us know your thoughts on the strange electrosensory organs in the comments below!

Images: Flickr // Elias Levy; Sarah Keartes

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