Shark attack: menace or myth?



1. Shark repellent

2. How dangerous?

3. Shark lovers

4. A social killer?

5.Hammerhead's head

In one test, lemon sharks proved smarter than cats. Courtesy Grant Johnson, Bimini Biological Field Station.

In the social hierarchy of a lemon shark, bigger is better. Courtesy Grant Johnson, Bimini Biological Field Station.

Not a good sight if you're planning on snorkeling, but these black-tipped sharks in the Bahamas were described as "quite shy." Courtesy Shark Defense


A social predator
When you think about social animals, you are more likely to think about ants or wildebeest than sharks. But some sharks do have a social life, says shark expert Samuel Gruber of the University of Miami. He says he became enamored of lemon sharks while studying their vision years ago. "I was amazed by the fact that sharks were thought to be blind swimming noses, yet they had these highly sophisticated eyes, retinas and mobile pupils. They had all kinds of incredible adaptations ... and it got me thinking that there was more to these fish than meets the eye."

Shark swims close to sandy ocean floorin shallow water

Sharks also seemed smart. "Right away, I was impressed by their ability to learn," Gruber says. One study showed Pavlovian conditioning, where an animal is taught to respond to a stimulus that originally has no meaning. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov noticed that if he rang a bell every time he fed a dog, the mutt would eventually drool at the sound of the bell, whether grub was around or not.

Gruber noticed that lemon sharks wink when given an electric shock, so he started flashing a light with the jolt. "After only 100 pairings, it would wink at the light alone. It takes a cat 800 trials to make that connection."

Now, any animal smarter than a fur person catches that Why File eye.

Big shark = top shark
School of sharks swims through plants on ocean floor. More recently, Gruber has examined the social structure of lemon sharks penned at the Bimini Biological Field Station. When two sharks approach, one tends to give way. "It's like when you walk down the street and somebody moves aside," says Gruber. "We reckoned the submissive shark would give way and the dominant one would continue on."

With lemon sharks, dominance was all a matter of size. But sex played a role in bonnet-head sharks, he adds. "Smaller males could dominate bigger females in some cases. We thought that had to do with their propensity to bite the female to induce mating." Presumably, if females were not in the mood, they could glide aside to avoid a love bite.

So why didn't this behavior appear in the lemon sharks? Perhaps because they were immature, and didn't have sex on the brain.

No more Mr. Numb Skull
These results help overturn the image of the shark as a dumb, efficient predator. "People often think about sharks as lone rovers of the open ocean," says Gruber, "and don't consider them to have a social life, other than perhaps when they mate. That's not true for lemon sharks, they hang out together, display social behavior, are attracted to one another, and are dominant or submissive in a group."

One caution: Gruber's students saw the social behavior in penned sharks. Whether it appears in the open ocean remains to be seen.

Sharks slice through shallow gray-green water.

Is the hammerhead shark a freak of nature?

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