How well do you know sharks?

Older than trees and found in every ocean: there is so much to discover about these incredible animals.
Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated 13 July 2022

Shark!  When someone shouts this, it’s usually said with fear rather than excitement. For decades, Hollywood and the media have continued to portray sharks as ‘man-eaters’ – ‘monsters of the sea’. In reality, sharks are poorly understood and it is this fear that creates a barrier between humans and sharks.

When you think of a shark, it’s usually one of the ‘Big Three’ – bull, tiger and white shark – however there are in fact over 1000 species of sharks in the oceans of all shapes and sizes. Allow us to break down that barrier between you and sharks with some fin-credible information that will mako your day!

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Manta rays are filter feeders and are amongst some of the largest animals in the ocean.

Sharks are intelligent

How smart are sharks? It all depends on how you define smart, but in general, sharks have a bigger brain compared to their body size than many animals. They display more complex behaviours than most people expect!

Sharks are capable of long-distance repeated migrations, complicated hunting behaviours and exhibit social learnings – the ability to learn new behaviours by watching another of the same species do it first. There is even evidence that sharks can problem solve. Manta rays, a shark relative, have the biggest brain of any fish. They have complex social relationships and can even recognise themselves in a mirror!

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There are over 150 species of catshark. They are the smaller of the shark species, usually feeding on small fish and invertebrates.

Sharks have individual personalities

Until now, most people thought that all sharks were the same. Studies have now shown that sharks in fact have different personalities within the same species. Port Jackson sharks, local to Southern Australia, have been observed to vary in boldness. The bolder the individual, the greater risk they took in exploring novel, dangerous habitats. Research in the UK discovered that species of catsharks display similar behaviours – they even group together and rest on top of each other on the seafloor! Why is this important? The different personalities of sharks help influence how they interact in their habitat and with other species – this has large ecological impacts which is important to the survival of our oceans.

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Reef sharks are vital for the health of coral reef ecosystem. Sadly they are prone to overfishing - targeted for their fins and liver.

Sharks form social groups or  ‘friendships’

Many people think of sharks as lone predators – solitary and mysteriously gliding through the deep. A scientific paper published in 2020 by a renowned shark scientist found that species of reef shark in the Pacific Ocean return to the same communities year after year. Some sharks were even observed to prefer the company of certain other sharks – indicating a form of ‘friendship’. Other research has shown that certain shark species congregate together whether it’s for protection or food, forming complex social networks. These types of relationships were once thought to only occur in mammals such as chimpanzees.

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Great white sharks play an important role in our ecosystem as top predators keeping prey populations, such as sealions, in balance. But they also play an important role to each other by forming 'friendships'! A recent study found Great Whites' form strong associations or 'friendships' with other Great Whites, and once selected, will hang out with them for hours or even days at a time.

Sharks feel  ‘pain’

Before we dive into this one, there is an important disclaimer to note. Pain is a private experience. We all feel pain on different levels and pain is expressed differently between mammals (including us), fish, reptiles and so on. This makes it hard to verify and measure. So, do sharks feel pain? Yes – but it is different to how we express pain. Sharks do not have the same nervous system as mammals but what we do have in common are neurons called nociceptors. These receptors are designed to detect potential harm – such as temperature and pressure.

Sharks can also hold memories and adapt their behaviour to a new circumstance. Combined, this indicates to us that once sharks have experienced pain, they remember and adapt so they don’t suffer again. Sadly, humans have devised methods of inflicting pain on sharks meaning they repeatedly suffer.

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A shark swimming just above the sandy sea floor in clear blue water.
Tiger sharks, common in Australia, are named due to the distinctive stripes along their body. Researchers and conservationists who've spent a lot of time getting to know them report they can tell one tiger shark apart from another, because of their distinct personalities.

Want to help to protect the ocean and save sharks?

  • Help to shine a light on the importance of shark protection. By sharing this article, or talking about the plight of sharks with friends and family, you can help to turn the conversation around. Sharks are deeply misunderstood, and extremely important to the world as we know it, and they need your help to spread the word! 
  • Fill your plate with food that is kinder to all sea animals, including sharks. And you can still eat all the classics – from ‘fish and chips’ to ‘crabcakes’ – with these ocean-inspired dishes. You can order your free Veg Starter Kit here for all the information needed to explore tasty, animal-friendly food. 
  • Take action to end the use of shark nets and drumlines in Australia. Encourage the use of non-lethal alternatives that will help protect Australia’s beach-goers, as well as sharks and other marine life.

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