They were first described by Stefano Lorenzini in 1678. They are mostly discussed as being found in cartilaginous fishes (sharks, rays, and chimaeras); however, they are also reported to be found in Chondrostei such as Reedfish and sturgeon. Lungfish have also been reported to have them. Teleosts have re-evolved a different type of electroreceptors.
These sensory organs help fish to sense electric fields in the water. Each ampulla consists of a jelly-filled canal opening to the surface by a pore in the skin and ending blindly in a cluster of small pockets full of special jelly. The ampullae are mostly clustered into groups inside the body, each cluster having ampullae connecting with different parts of the skin, but preserving a left-right symmetry. The canal lengths vary from animal to animal, but the distribution of the pores is generally specific to each species. The ampullae pores are plainly visible as dark spots in the skin. They provide fish with a sixth sense capable of detecting electromagnetic fields as well as temperature gradients.
The ampullae detect electric fields in the water, or more precisely the difference between the voltage at the skin pore and the voltage at the base of the electroreceptor cells. A positive pore stimulus would decrease the rate of nerve activity coming from the electroreceptor cells, and a negative pore stimulus would increase the rate of nerve activity coming from the electroreceptor cells.
Sharks may be more sensitive to electric fields than any other animal, with a threshold of sensitivity as low as 5 nV/cm. That is 5/1,000,000,000 of a volt measured in a centimeter-long ampulla. Since all living creatures produce an electrical field by muscle contractions, it is easy to imagine that a shark may pick up weak electrical stimuli from the muscle contractions of animals, particularly prey. On the other hand, the electrochemical fields generated by paralyzed prey were sufficient to elicit a feeding attack from sharks and rays in experimental tanks; therefore muscle contractions are not necessary to attract the animals. Sharks and rays can locate prey buried in the sand, or DC electric dipoles simulating the main feature of the electric field of a prey buried in the sand.
The electric fields produced by oceanic currents moving in the magnetic field of the earth are of the same order of magnitude as the electric fields that sharks and rays are capable of sensing. This could mean that sharks and rays can orient to the electric fields of oceanic currents, and use other sources of electric fields in the ocean for local orientation. Additionally, the electric field they induce in their bodies when swimming in the magnetic field of the earth may enable them to sense their magnetic heading.
At least one company sells a shark repellent that makes use of shark electroreceptors. It uses large magnets formed into an ankle bracelet and it is reported that field tests show sharks moving away when coming near them.