People who fear sharks know the last music they should play while at the beach is the theme song from “Jaws.” Nothing says “Dinner is served” like that “dah-dump” which is not really lyrical but who’s a music critic when there’s a great white heading for your feet? Is there any kind of music that can turn the ocean’s top predator into a friendlier, albeit large and pointy-toothed, fish? Turns out, there is … jazz.
In a study conducted by Australia's Macquarie University Fish Lab (motto: Go Fish!), researchers trying to determine if elasmobranchs — sharks, rays and skates — could differentiate between sounds (nice work if you can get it) trained baby Port Jackson sharks (Heterodontus portusjacksoni) to associate jazz and classical music with feeding time. It’s not rocket science – they played the music and put food in a certain spot in the pool until the sharks started going there when they heard the songs – but no one seems to have tested the auditory abilities of sharks before.
"Sound is really important for aquatic animals; it travels well under water and fish use it to find food, hiding places and even to communicate."
In the study, published in the journal Animal Cognition, lead author Catarina Vila-Pouca reveals that five out of the eight baby sharks learned to associate the sound of a jazz song with food appearing in a specific corner of the tank. A lesser number linked classical music to food, which indicated to the researchers the sharks’ preference for jazz. Yes, that’s a pretty simple test but who want to be like an optometrist and keep asking a shark, “Better or worse?”
The test wasn’t rocket science because sharks aren’t really rocket scientists. When the researchers tried to train them to go to one corner for jazz and another for classical tunes, they got confused … and the last thing you want is a confused shark, even if it’s a baby Port Jackson – a member of the bullhead family whose furled forehead actually makes it look like it’s thinking … or getting down to a jazz tune.
Which brings up the question … what kind of jazz do sharks like? Smooth or bop? Sax or trumpet? Standards or improv? Bird or Miles? Since they don’t have fingers, what do they snap to the music?
Those questions are for another test … if Vila-Pouca is brave enough to conduct it. For now, she seems happy just to prove that sharks are smarter than humans give them credit for.
"Gaining a better understanding of this will help grow positive public opinion of sharks and may shift public and political will towards their conservation."
Except among classical music lovers.