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Sharks Have Brains Like… Ours

Sharks Have Brains Like… Ours

After five shark fatalities in the past year, the Western Australian government announced a plan to hunt and kill great white sharks, an endangered species, in September. Conservationists have harshly criticized the new “shark mitigation plan to protect beach goers” which provides $6.85 million in funding for the tracking, catching and “if necessary,” killing of sharks identified as being close proximity to beach goers.

There are other ways to prevent shark attacks besides killing them. New research about the neurology of sharks published in a special edition of the journal Brain, Behaviour and Evolution on the nervous systems of cartilaginous fishes could be key to developing “repellents” to keep them away from marine areas used by humans.

From dissecting the brains of more than 150 sharks, University of Western Australia shark researcher Kara Yopak discovered that their brains have a number of features like that of humans. As Yopak says to AFP, great white sharks actually have “quite large parts of the brain associated with their visual input, with implications for them being much more receptive to repellents targeting visual markers.”

Currently, most of the repellents send off a strong electronic signal that targets the electrosensitive pores sharks have on their heads for picking up the currents created by prey. But such technologies have been shown to be only partially effective in deterring great white sharks. As Yopak says,

A shark may recognise a poisonous sea-snake’s markings and swim away, for example, and we can use this information to cue a response. It’s about understanding how their neurobiology affects their (behaviour).

Yopak, who is part of a team of scientists at the university’s Oceans Institute, also found that sharks’ brains are of the same relative size as those of mammals or birds, thereby confuting the notion that they are “tiny-brained eating machines.”

Based on her research, simply putting certain patterns on surfers’ wetsuits and surfboards could possibly repel sharks.

As Kopak writes in a preface (pdf) to the journal:

To the general public, the term ‘shark’ is often synonymous with mystery, fear, and morbid fascination. To an evolutionary neuroscientist, however, sharks and their relatives (skates, rays, elephant sharks, and chimaerids) represent a key a stage in the evolution of gnathostomes, with the appearance of the first fully formed neural ‘bauplan’ that is present in all extant jawed vertebrates.

That is, studying how the shark nervous system has evolved, as well as how sharks and their relatives “receive and process information from their environment” and the implications of these “evolutionary adaptations in sensorimotor function” for their nervous systems, can teach us something not only about their neurology but our own.

The Western Australian government’s shark mitigation plan also included funds for trial shark enclosure, a shark tagging program, more jet skis for rescuers and more helicopter patrols of beaches — and more research funds. Clearly it would be a positive step for the latter to be used to support research like Yopak’s. Her discovery about the similarities between sharks’ brains and ours makes it all the more important to find other ways for all of us to share the ocean and, to the extent possible, co-exist.

If sharks’ neurology resembles ours, hunting and killing them seems even more cruel and unnecessary.

 

Related Care2 Coverage

Australia Okays Hunting of the Great White Shark

5 Reasons There Will Soon Be No More Fish in Our Seas

How Jaws Changed The World, For Better Or For Worse

 

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127 comments

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8:29PM PST on Feb 17, 2013

Thank you.

4:55AM PST on Feb 4, 2013

I think it's a great idea to study what the sharks don't like the look of- such as the snake. Then they can make wet suits the same coloring as the snake. Btw humans are animals- in response to earlier post.

4:24AM PST on Feb 4, 2013

Don't think they can't think

8:24AM PST on Feb 3, 2013

thank you

8:24AM PST on Feb 3, 2013

thank you

1:10PM PST on Dec 10, 2012

interesting

10:43AM PST on Dec 4, 2012

When I was youngster, I had it out with Blue Sharks at Brooklyn's Coney Island beach. I was around 6 or 7 years old. One small one tried to bite me, and I punched him in the nose and he/she swim away, and later that day in a different area of the beach, another large one swam next to me while I fell asleep floating on my back. He/she did not try to bite me, but was probably just resting near me, and maybe the parent of the shark I had punched earlier. I noticed the large fin leaning on me that actually woke me up, only to realize that I had fallen asleep and was drifting quite away from the shore. I was a good swimmer at that age. I swam back to shore on my own. I was not harmed at all, but the adrenaline was rushing to the max over the sharks. Some people help attract sharks by wearing jewelry, etc. Some do it intentionally, not all. Earlier in the day, I had been swimming near the pier where people fished and used bait. This is why the young blue shark tried to bite me. I was too young to realize it. I thought the blue shark was just angry (the aggressive swimming motions), and I did not realize the shark wanted me for lunch. Anyway, I was not harmed at all by them. I traveled to Brooklyn/Coney Island the next day to go swimming, again--just not near the pier. I was never bothered by sharks there again, swimming there for several more years. Humans often bully the environment and animals, and then complain of floods and mudslides, etc.

1:44PM PST on Nov 20, 2012

Bonjour,

Thank you for this article.

Why so many interests in "brains" ? And why compare this one to this one ?

Human are not animals. And this is certainly not in looking to "brains" that you could find the truth about Life.

This is a very mechanical viewpoint, reducing everything to "chemistry" and electric inputs.

If someone would like to understand something about Life, then look at very closely to Life and not to a collection of cells.

Scientists must change their viewpoint - Life is Life, and all physical or chemical or electrical phenomons are small parts of Life performances.

5:55AM PST on Nov 16, 2012

thanks for sharing

6:22PM PST on Nov 13, 2012

Thanks for sharing.

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