Smart sharks: a review of chondrichthyan cognition

Published on
17 November 2022

Smart sharks: a review of chondrichthyan cognition

Culum Brown, Vera Schluessel 


450 million years of evolution have given chondrichthyans (sharks, rays and allies) ample time to adapt perfectly to their respective everyday life challenges and cognitive abilities have played an important part in that process. The diversity of niches that sharks and rays occupy corresponds to matching diversity in brains and behaviour, but we have only scratched the surface in terms of investigating cognition in this important group of animals. The handful of species that have been cognitively assessed in some detail over the last decade have provided enough data to safely conclude that sharks and rays are cognitively on par with most other vertebrates, including mammals and birds. Experiments in the lab as well as in the wild pose their own unique challenges, mainly due to the handling and maintenance of these animals as well as controlling environmental conditions and elimination of confounding factors. Nonetheless, significant advancements have been obtained in the fields of spatial and social cognition, discrimination learning, memory retention as well as several others. Most studies have focused on behaviour and the underlying neural substrates involved in cognitive information processing are still largely unknown. Our understanding of shark cognition has multiple practical benefits for welfare and conservation management but there are obvious gaps in our knowledge. Like most marine animals, sharks and rays face multiple threats. The effects of climate change, pollution and resulting ecosystem changes on the cognitive abilities of sharks and stingrays remain poorly investigated and we can only speculate what the likely impacts might be based on research on bony fishes. Lastly, sharks still suffer from their bad reputation as mindless killers and are heavily targeted by commercial fishing operations for their fins. This public relations issue clouds people’s expectations of shark intelligence and is a serious impediment to their conservation. In the light of the fascinating results presented here, it seems obvious that the general perception of sharks and rays as well as their status as sentient, cognitive animals, needs to be urgently revisited.

Anim Cogn (2022). DOI: 10.1007/s10071-022-01708-3


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