Dec 25, 2014 I Tom Head

Are Sharks Intelligent?

On average, sharks kill four people each year. Humans kill about 100 million sharks, the vast majority (about 73 million) killed for shark fin soup. You’d see a human kill a shark 25 million times before you’d see a shark kill a human, and generally with far less provocation. For comparative purposes: even cows kill five times as many people each year as sharks do, and we kill fewer than half as many of them (41.7 million). So the idea that sharks are murder machines is a little hard to swallow. (The idea that humans are murder machines may be a little closer to the truth.)

But are they capable of intelligence, love, and other warm tingly things? Oliver Duff, The Independent’s executive editor and part-time scuba diver, thinks maybe they are. And he has a video—and really touching article—to back up that claim. Like many others, Duff took advantage of an opportunity to dive with sharks at the Sharklab (Bimini Biological Field Station) in the Bahamas. That’s not as dangerous as it sounds.


"I have not yet been eaten on sight,” Duff writes, "but I have been stared at with alarm and curiosity.” He goes on to write:

Sharks have individual personalities. They socialise, choose best friends and create social networks of unusual complexity. They can be trained by humans to complete simple tasks, much more quickly than rabbits or cats, for instance, and retain the knowledge for much longer. Sharks also teach each other new tricks: how to find food, identify predators and charm mates. Like sea turtles, some travel huge distances to return to their own birthplace, again and again, to give birth themselves … And rather than being near-blind and reliant on smell, which is the general perception, they in fact have advanced sight. They feel pain. And the boldest sharks face a greater risk of dying before adulthood.

These aren’t mushy claims; they’ve all been scientifically vetted. One British study from earlier this year, for example, found that sharks have distinctive personalities and consistent social roles:

[T]he team tested for social personality by recording the social interactions of groups of juvenile small spotted catsharks in captivity under three different habitat types …Working at the MBA in Plymouth, Devon, ten groups of sharks were monitored in large tanks containing three habitats which differed in their level of structural complexity.

Dr David Jacoby, a behavioural ecologist now at the Institute of Zoology, London said: “We found that even though the sizes of the groups forming changed, socially well-connected individuals remained well-connected under each new habitat. In other words, their social network positions were repeated through time and across different habitats.

“These results were driven by different social preferences (i.e social/antisocial individuals) that appeared to reflect different strategies for staying safe. Well-connected individuals formed conspicuous groups, while less social individuals tended to camouflage alone, matching their skin colour with the colour of the gravel substrate in the bottom of the tank.” 

Many sharks also have highly-developed brains relative to other fish, but shark neuroanatomy is even less well understood than human neuroanatomy. We know that the notorious great white shark has a remarkably large brain, as the brains of fish go, but we don’t know what that remarkably large brain does. (It’s entirely possible that sharks, like mammals, have complex emotional lives.) But it doesn’t take a large brain to demonstrate remarkable intelligence, as bees have shown us, and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that even smaller sharks are much smarter than we’d imagined. We just don’t know yet.

What we can be reasonably certain about is that shark intelligence is different enough from ours that we’re unlikely to recognize it. We are, by and large, a verbal and narrative-creating species—a species of storytellers—and this bias has informed both our definition of intelligence and our ability to recognize intelligent traits in other species.

The example of bees does suggest that when we see an outstandingly clear behavioral trait in another species, we assume that everything that species does is to the service of that trait—so we have a tendency to assume that the intelligence of bees is all about hive-making, that the intelligence of sharks is all about hunting smaller prey, and so on. If we were to apply that logic to ourselves, we might assume that cities exist purely for agricultural purposes, or that we invented airplanes so that we could hunt birds more efficiently. Perhaps our tendency to see all sharks as hunters, and as little else, will one day be shown to be equally ridiculous. Their unique neuroanatomy may point to a different way of seeing the world, one that may ultimately inform our own.


Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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