Far from being simple mindless eating machines, as it happens, sharks are smarter and more complex than we previously thought.
Shark researcher Kara Yopak recently presented her findings about shark "intelligence" to the Australian Society for Fish Biology and Oceania Chondrichthyan Society conference. Her research supports the idea that sharks are smarter than we previously thought.
The four-day conference, held in Hobart, Australia, played host to 250 of the Australia's leading shark and fish biology experts.
University of Western Australia researcher Yopak indicated that the belief that "sharks are these small-brained pre-programmed eating machines" is a common misconception amongst the public. Says Yopak,
They are actually relatively large-brained species and they are capable of such an incredible range of complex behaviors.
She also cast some doubt on the effectiveness of shark repellents. Stating that because different species of sharks have different brains and react to stimuli each according to its species, Yopak suggested that one-size-fits-all repellents may be much less effective than we realize.
"When we are investigating repellents we probably need to take a species-specific approach. The likelihood we are going to find one deterrent to rule them all is not very realistic," she said.
"Simply because these animals are living in different habitats, they are specializing in different senses and they are eating different things."
Sharks also react to changes in their habitat. According to Australian Institute of Marine Science senior research scientist Michelle Heupel, this suggests that they have either a level of intellectual capacity. Or at least some level of instinctual receptiveness to external stimuli.
"Sharks tend to know where they are," Heupel said. "We have had data where we have tracked sharks in a certain area, we've had a disturbance come through like a cyclone or a tropical storm, and all of the animals we were tracking will leave the area. And then, after the system moves on they all come back."
What that means is that they know where they live, they know how to get out of the way of something potentially dangerous and they know how to get back.
They respond to very subtle changes in their environment and they will direct their movement based on when things change in their habitat which says that they have at least some level of intellectual capacity.
Whether this equates to intellectual capacity or not is debatable, but it does provide food for thought and probably requires more research in order to draw any definitive conclusions.
In any event, our understanding of sharks is ever-growing. It's about time we began to appreciate them as more than simple toothy predators just itching to turn you into a snack.
They may not be dolphin smart but clearly sharks are smarter than many of us give them credit for.
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