The Role of Olfactory Cues in the Homing Behavior of Blacktip Sharks

paper3Published online on 13. July 2015

Smells Like Home: The Role of Olfactory Cues in the Homing Behavior of Blacktip Sharks, Carcharhinus limbatus

Jayne M. Gardiner, Nicholas M. Whitney, Robert E. Hueter


Animal navigation in the marine environment is believed to be guided by different sensory cues over different spatial scales. Geomagnetic cues are thought to guide long-range navigation, while visual or olfactory cues allow animals to pinpoint precise locations, but the complete behavioral sequence is not yet understood. Terra Ceia Bay is a primary nursery area for blacktip sharks, Carcharhinus limbatus, on southwestern Florida’s Gulf of Mexico coast. Young-of-the-year animals show strong fidelity to a specific home range in the northeastern end of the bay and rapidly return when displaced. Older juveniles demonstrate annual philopatry for the first few years, migrating as far south as the Florida Keys each fall, then returning to Terra Ceia Bay each spring. To examine the sensory cues used in homing, we captured neonate (<3 weeks old) blacktip sharks from within their home range, fitted them with acoustic tags, and translocated them to sites 8 km away in adjacent Tampa Bay and released them. Intact animals returned to their home range, within 34 h on average, and remained there. With olfaction blocked, fewer animals returned to their home range and they took longer to do so, 130 h on average. However, they did not remain there but instead moved throughout Terra Ceia Bay and in and out of Tampa Bay. Since sharks from both treatments returned at night in tannic and turbid water, vision is likely not playing a major role in navigation by these animals. The animals in this study also returned on incoming or slack tides, suggesting that sharks, like many other fish, may use selective tidal stream transport to conserve energy and aid navigation during migration. Collectively, these results suggest that while other cues, possibly geomagnetic and/or tidal information, might guide sharks over long distances, olfactory cues are required for recognizing their specific home range.

Integrative and Comparative Biology (2015) doi: 10.1093/icb/icv087



Leave a Reply