Could a species with an incredibly advanced electroreceptive organ (such as that of a shark) be able to use it above water? The gas-mix in which the sense works must be breathable to humans, and it would be good if it was the same mix as in the earth's atmosphere.


2 Answers 2


TL;DR: no.

Electroreception that works underwater is fundamentally different from electroreception that works above water. You're not going to create an electric circuit in air, even if it is really misty or really rainy, unless either you, or the things you're trying to find, are generating ridiculously high voltages (think tesla coil, not electric eel... megavolts, not mere hundreds of volts) at which point you'll be able to detect them by the fact that they're arcing and your ability to sense light, heat, sound or impending frazzly doom will work just as well as electroreception if not better.

Above-water electroreception does exist, in the form of mechanosensory hairs on insects such as bumble bees that react to electrostatic charges. These work in a similar way to the hairs on your own body which move in response to strong external electrical fields, only the insect equivalents are much more sensitive. Detecting electrostatic charges in this way is not something that will arise in a species that evolved in a conductive medium.

It is just about possible to detect neuromuscular activity through sufficiently cunning sensory devices... the creators of the Electrical Potential Sensors referenced in that paper claim the ability to detect muscular activity through walls, though doing so in anything other than an extremely well shielded environment is proving to be unsurprisingly problematic. I'm not certain this technique would work well underwater, but I could be wrong.

I do not know if a biological equivalent of these complex devices could arise, but it seems unlikely to appear in an underwater environment (because regular electroreception is simpler and works just as well if not better), and given the alternatives that can be used and indeed have evolved in an above-water environment (thermoception, echolocation and more familiar things like sight, hearing and even touch) there seems little reason to expect it would arise naturally.


At close distances it could.

I am thinking of small things in a dark world. In close proximity, electrostatic forces come into play. We can see that at work with our own bodies - if you scuff your feet on a dry day and accumulate charge, you can see the hairs on your arm stand up when they approach a conductive object. My own experiments with flies and a Teslacoil has demonstrated that fly wings will also move in response to charge.

If your creature itself kept itself charged, it could detect other objects in proximity to it according to how charge accumulated in its peripheral hair or winglike detector organs.

I do not think that this would be useful at human scale distances for which sight and hearing are useful. But at a very small scale this could be super useful; a small electrically charged organism could use this ability for things besides sensation as well, such as propulsion.

  • $\begingroup$ I was looking for something more like how a shark can sense other animal's heartbeats etc. sorry for not being clear about that in the post. what you have talked about seems very interesting, and I may use it for some smaller creatures in my world. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2019 at 11:10

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .