Spontaneous firing of neurons plays an essential part in the detection of sensory stimuli. Spontaneous firing of primary afferents of ampullary electroreceptor organs in the catfish Ameiurus nebulosus (Lesueur, 1819) was studied in relation to the distribution, thresholds, and frequency characteristics of the electroreceptor organs. The spontaneous firing rate was correlated with the place on the skin. The mean inter-spike interval in 55 dorsal and 49 ventral ampullary organs in five specimens was 16.8 ms +/- 0.41 SEM and 20.5 ms +/- 0.48 SEM, corresponding to firing rates of 59.5 and 48.7 s-1 respectively. The concomitant coefficients of variation were 0.33 and 0.29. Approximately half of the dorsal ampullae were innervated by two fibres. The firing rates of each of the two fibres was lower than the firing rate of organs innervated by a single neuron. Responses to stimuli as weak as 10 pA could be recovered from the noisy average firing level provided the number of averaging sweeps was sufficiently large. This was equivalent to a stimulus of 0.025 μV/cm and was lower than the behavioural threshold of 1 μV/cm. The gain of the frequency response was enhanced at the carrier frequency, at twice the carrier frequency, and in the range from 75-90 Hz. The results revealed that the occurrence of spontaneous activity improved the signal to noise ratio of responses to electrical stimuli by reduction of the coefficient of variation, absence of a threshold, and phase locking.