Sharks play an essential rol in the health of our oceans

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Sharks feel it coming!

The ampullae of Lorenzini / picture by Peter Verhoog / Dutch shark Society
These sensory organs help fish to sense electric fields in the water. Each ampulla consists of a jelly-filled canal opening to the surface by a pore in the skin and ending blindly in a cluster of small pockets full of special jelly.

Sharks are living in a changing ocean…

Understanding how sharks sense and interact with their environment is vital for sustaining populations of these marine predators, which support the health of oceans around the world. Overfishing is the greatest known threat, but pollution and other environmental changes may affect the natural signals that sharks need for hunting and other key behaviors. However, before shark senses can teach us anything, scientists must gain a basic understanding of how they work.

Water flows through the lateral line systems. Vibrations in the water stimulate sensory cells in the main tube, alerting the shark to prey and predators. (HowStuffWorks)

Past studies have suggested that sharks sense the drifting smell of distant prey, swim upstream toward it using their lateral lines—the touch-sensitive systems that feel water movement—and then at closer ranges they seem to aim and strike using vision, lateral line or electroreception—a special sense that sharks and related fish use to detect electric fields from living prey. Now a study by scientists from the University of South Florida, Mote Marine Laboratory and Boston University has shown how how all work together in every step of hunting: from the first whiff to the final chomp —in a new study about shark senses that was supported by the National Science Foundation and published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE.

Results show that sharks with different lifestyles may favor different senses, and they can sometimes switch when their preferred senses are blocked. That’s hopeful news for sharks trying to find food in changing and sometimes degraded environments.

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