Everyone can do with a helping fin from time to time, including solitary Port Jackson sharks. Imagine a shark, in captivity, observing a fellow tankmate performing a maze task. The shark modifies her own behaviour to reflect that of her more knowledgeable companion. Researchers now understand that sharks are intelligent enough to learn and copy behaviours from other sharks. Makes you question their monstrous reputation, doesn’t it?
Sharks are notoriously portrayed by the entertainment and news industries as bloodthirsty killing machines, attacking their victims with reckless abandon. Hollywood films like Jaws and Sharknado perpetuate the stereotype of sharks as creatures with sinister impulses. News outlets report close encounters with sharks, whilst alerting the public about shark attacks and sightings. Fear-mongering sells, and emotive topics appeal. We thrive off interacting with content that scares, fascinates and disgusts us all at once. The phenomenon of confirmation bias ensures that consumers primarily seek information that further solidifies their existing worldviews. In the media and otherwise, sharks are rarely portrayed as intelligent and sentient. Reading and watching negative content about sharks reinforces humanity’s instinctive fear of these animals. Large teeth and unblinking eyes—characteristics far from mammalian—trigger a deeply ingrained “fight or flight” response in humans.
The study of Port Jackson sharks modifying their behaviours in a maze task was published in January of 2020. Four researchers from Macquarie University and Flinders University in Australia conducted the study; Catarina Vila Pouca was the primary researcher. Although sharks as a species are solitary, the researchers observed behaviours that can be described as social learning.
The phenomena of social learning, in which animals learn behaviours from their peers, is common within the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees watch in awe as family members smash nuts to gain access to protein-rich treats within. Lions learn and remember the locations of easily accessible livestock. Orcas develop different dialects depending on which parts of the ocean they inhabit. Scientists are exploring the cognitive abilities of fish, but still understand very little about the intelligence of elasmobranchs, the group of fish to which sharks, rays, and skates belong. Vila Pouca and her team’s study is only the third investigation into social learning in sharks.
Due to their elusive nature, sharks are difficult to study. Their complex dietary and habitat requirements make it difficult to keep them in captivity. Vila Pouca and her team’s experimental design allowed the researchers to overcome the traditional obstacles to studying shark behaviour. The researchers collected sixty Port Jackson shark eggs, which they hatched in their laboratory. After birth, some of the sharks were trained to correctly navigate a maze, by being rewarded with tasty pieces of squid. Other sharks, who received no maze training, either navigated the maze unassisted or were paired with the maze-trained sharks. The sharks paired with knowledgeable companions learnt the correct direction within the maze faster than those without peer guidance. Although juvenile Port Jackson sharks are solitary—they had been thought to lack the instinctive ability to copy cues from their peers—they recognized that their trained cage-mates were being rewarded and modified their behaviors to receive the same rewards.
The study’s results suggest that the behaviors of sharks are not instinctually fixed. Vila Pouca agrees that “fish, including sharks, were considered instinctive for a long time.” She hopes that her team’s research will definitively prove that “sharks are smart, complex animals [who] possess many cognitive parallels with the furry companion sitting beside you.”
Despite their evident intelligence and intimidating exterior, sharks are vulnerable as a species. Vila Pouca doubts that sharks’ intelligence can help them to “outswim” the serious threats that they face: overfishing and climate change. “Sharks can learn to avoid baited hooks. They can even learn locations of novel food sources, seen in shark tourism… Unfortunately, the scale and pace of industrial fishing will be a barrier to any permanent evolutionary changes in shark behaviour.”
Sharks are overfished for their cartilage, meat, and skin. Humans kill eleven thousand sharks every hour. Shark fin soup is a delicacy in some countries—but the harvesting methods are far from ethical. Humans amputate sharks’ fins whilst the sharks are still alive, then discard the sharks back into the ocean. Unable to swim—a movement essential to sharks for respiration—the finless sharks either suffocate before they reach the ocean floor or, having been rendered defenseless, are eaten by predators. Even when not directly hunted by humans, sharks can easily become entangled in humans’ fishing gear, as sharks and humans often gather in the same fishing hotspots to compete for the same food.
Humans kill vastly more sharks than sharks do humans. Only 64 shark attacks on humans were confirmed in 2019, yet sharks are consistently portrayed by the media as bloodthirsty agents of murder. Vila Pouca stresses that the media plays a huge role in shark conservation, as government policies are influenced by public perception. “People will support political agendas against scientific advice, which is influenced by fear. We see this with some shark deterrent measures in Australia.” Shark attacks, not the ongoing human attacks upon sharks, continue to prevail in the media.
Humans’ fear of sharks is a poor excuse for the brutality that we inflict upon them. Our collective emphasis on shark attacks, rather than sharks’ cognition, is leading to devastating results for the species’ conservation. The challenge of conservation, already daunting, is exacerbated by humans’ strong, negative perceptions of an animal species that needs our protection—not our predation.
Humans naturally have more affection for some species than others; the degree of empathy is influenced by the intelligence that a species possesses. Animal intelligence is too often measured by the extent to which a species performs human-like behaviours. Clever dogs can recall the names of over 1,000 toys and chatty parrots use humans’ vocabulary; charismatic megafauna like the giant panda are so beloved that they sometimes are treated as mascots for entire countries. Sharks, as animals with completely different evolutionary pressures, exhibit many fewer human-like behaviours. Emphasising and celebrating the intelligence of sharks would help to ensure their conservation.
Sharks are at risk of extinction because of humans’ actions, not the other way around. Humans are equal parts blasé and ignorant about our predation of this elasmobranch species. Vila Pouca and her team have demonstrated that sharks are thinking beings, capable of expressing behavioural traits that we see in many of the animal species that we love. Sharks are magnificent creatures; rather than fearing or eating them, humans can—and should—regard them with respect, empathy, and perhaps even love.
Bryony is a freelance writer from Kent, U.K. Her blog, BrynsteinScience, focuses on nature and the beautiful creatures within it.