Just like humans, sharks learn how to do things from each other

Dr Catarina Vila-Pouca & Professor Culum Brown
6 November 2019
Faculty of Science and Engineering


Few people think of sharks as intelligent and socially complex animals but it seems that even solitary sharks can learn by watching their neighbours, a Macquarie University study reveals.

Far from being the mindless eating machines as often portrayed in popular media, new research from the Macquarie University Fish Lab, in collaboration with Flinders University, has shown that sharks are adept social learners.

Port Jackson sharks

Better understanding: The Fish Lab hopes to reveal some of the fascinating learning abilities of sharks.

Researchers set out to test whether juvenile Port Jackson sharks, which are known to be anti-social, learned the route to a hidden food reward when they could interact with a previously trained shark.

Compared to individual learners, sharks that had the opportunity to watch others performing the task took fewer days to master the task, and more of them were successful.

During the study, researchers observed and video recorded 46 sharks split into three experimental groups in tanks to see which route they chose.

Sharks are generally underestimated when it comes to learning abilities - most people see them as primitive, instinct-driven animals.

“Scientists thought that the ability to learn from other animals was linked to social living and for long it was seen as an advanced skill of certain animal groups like primates,” says lead author Dr Catarina Vila-Pouca.

“Our work shows that sharks can gather information from other animals the same way primates and birds do.”

Learning from the individuals around you, as a human, monkey, bird, or a shark, is important because it can save you the time and trouble of exploring the world to discover things by yourself, Vila-Pouca says.

Catarina Vila Pouca from The Fish Lab

Changing public perceptions: Vila-Pouca says Port Jackson sharks are much smarter than people imagine. Credit: Leah Wood/SIMS.

Sharks and rays are among the most endangered animals on the planet.

The study, published in Animal Behaviour, provides evidence that solitary sharks can also benefit from using social information.

Professor Culum Brown, of the Department of Biological Sciences and the leader of The Fish Lab, says that social learning, rather than a unique ability that evolved in parallel with social living, is likely ubiquitous in the animal kingdom.

“Most individual learners failed the task in the allotted time, while the vast majority of the sharks paired with a trained demonstrator learned in just a few days,” says Brown.

“Even solitary animals are likely to encounter other individuals at certain times, so they too should be able to learn and benefit from social cues.”

Vila-Pouca says the research from The Fish Lab hopes to reveal some of the fascinating cognitive abilities of sharks.

A map showing where Port Jackson sharks are located in Australia

Fish are friends: Port Jackson sharks can be found in the coastal region of southern Australia, including the waters off Port Jackson.

“Sharks are generally underestimated when it comes to learning abilities - most people see them as primitive, instinct-driven animals.

“But even solitary, bottom-dwelling species like the Port Jackson shark are obviously much smarter than we give them credit for.

“If we can get the public to see sharks as the smart and complex animals it should encourage a more positive opinion of sharks and may shift public and political will towards appropriate management and conservation actions.”

The Fish Lab is part of the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University, within the Division of Brain, Behaviour and Evolution.


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