Often depicted as Hollywood monsters, bloodthirsty predators, or lone wolves prowling the depths, sharks are some of the planet's most misunderstood animals.
As scientists learn more about their behaviour, these portrayals of sharks prove more and more untrue. In fact, researchers now believe that some shark species are social creatures, maintaining close relationships and visiting their friends often. According to the Predator Ecology and Conservation Lab in Florida, sharks may "form these spatially structured social groups where they hang out with the same individuals over multiple years."
This team's ecologists, geneticists, and conservationists studied a population of grey reef sharks in the remote Palmyra Atoll. This far-flung region lies in the central Pacific Ocean between the Hawaiian Islands and Fiji. So, the shark population is isolated and easy to research. Researchers were able to attach location transmitters to 41 sharks, allowing them to track each animal's movements throughout the day. They also fitted two sharks with small video cameras on their fins, to capture a shark's-eye view of their day to day activities.
After tracking the same group of sharks for four years, the researchers came to a startling conclusion! The same groups of sharks, ranging from one or two individuals up to 20, frequently returned to the same locations again and again. Even more surprisingly, the team also found that some groups were in regular contact for the entire duration of the study. This is far longer than any previous researchers had observed.
While there are multiple theories on why the sharks might be motivated to stay together, the most likely reason is that it makes hunting for food easier. If one individual spots a reliable source, it may pass the information on to others within the group, to help them take advantage of the opportunity. So, while the sharks don't appear to hunt cooperatively, socialization might benefit their communities or small groups of individuals. And, as long as each gathering stays small enough to avoid raising competition and conflict, everybody benefits.
Some scientists who have been studying shark ecology and conservation for years were surprised to learn that the sharks stuck together for such a long time. But, these animals are highly intelligent and able to learn and adapt quickly - some species can even learn to solve puzzles! So, why wouldn't they employ a bit of teamwork to make life easier?
As we learn more about these fascinating animals' impressive behaviours and complex social structures, they begin to seem less and less like the ruthless killing machines the media often makes them out to be. Sharks will likely prove to possess a much higher level of intelligence and social ability than predicted, as well as a keen ability to process their environment, to learn, and change.
Are you ready to put your prejudices aside and get up close and personal with these powerful pelagics? Read more about the best places to dive with sharks in Asia here! And, if you have some questions about where to go and when, or how to make the most of your time in the water with these graceful animals, fell free to contact us. Our team of travel and diving experts are happy to help!