They Can Be Shy, They Can Be Sociable – Sharks Have Feelings, Too: Sharks’ Personality


A study led by the University of Exeter and the Marine Biology Association of the United Kingdom and published in the journal, Behavioural Ecology and Sociobiology, on 2 October 2014 has found that those legendary predators, sharks, have personalities which are evident from the manner in which they interact with other sharks. Personalities have been discerned in almost every kind of animal, be it an insect or a massive carnivore, however this is the first time that sharks’ personality has been noted.

What was done

The species used was the small spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula), a nocturnal beast found in the Mediterranean and north Atlantic, often off the coasts of the British Isles. Jaws it ain’t. This shark grows as long as 39 inches and feeds on cephalopods, crustaceans, mollusks, polychaete worms and small bony fish such as pilchards. They occasionally tackle fish as large as gurnards, which are 30 inches at most.

All the sharks were juveniles. For two days, 10 groups of 10 were housed in large tanks featuring three disparate habitats of varying complexity – the presence or otherwise of rocks and other features. This allowed for what Prof William Hughes, an animal behaviour expert for the University of Sussex, described as “a very, very detailed picture of the social relationships.” He compared the exercise to watching ten people to see which talked to other people and which remained aloof in a bar, a nightclub and a workplace, and termed it “a very nice piece of work” that yielded “pretty reasonable evidence” of sharks’ personality.

Sharks have feelings

Sharks’ personality, their social preferences, can be genetically-determined and reflected different security strategies, a requirement given that these small sharks stood little chance in the face of larger fish and could easily become what one scientist called “easy prey items.” These preferences were apparent in the sub-groups that formed. Sharks’ behaviour was the same, even in different environments. David Jacoby, a behavioural ecologist who previously worked for the University of Exeter but has since moved on to the London Institute of Zoology, explained that some sharks remained socially well-connected. Social sharks always sought security by forming large groups while their anti-social brethren kept themselves separate, camouflaging themselves by lurking over gravel substrate that matched their skin colour.

Sharks’ personality was not confined to shyness and sociability. Some also displayed curiosity and little sharks could be seen nuzzling larger animals and following them around. The study was funded by the Fisheries Society of the British Isles.

About the Author Timothy Chilman

Timothy Chilman used to work in IT. Once, in Sydney, he was turned down for a job because he was “too flamboyant” (“Someone who wears green tartan suspenders to a job interview probably isn’t going to fit in here”). Timothy then became an English teacher. University students in Bangkok complained that he was “too enthusiastic” and company students in Prague complained that he was “too theatrical.”

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