It seems that sharks are indeed more sophisticated than many people would like to think, as two researchers at the Macquarie University Fish Lab have found. Yet for all their intelligence, it seems that these predators of the deep may need some more time to figure out their musical tastes. However, food is one incentive, as PhD student Catarina Vila-Pouca and Professor Culum Brown have discovered, with sharks able to identify jazz music if there are treats involved.

Port Jackson shark. Photo © Bluebottle Films

“Sound is really important for aquatic animals, it travels well under water and fish use it to find food, hiding places and even to communicate,” said Vila-Pouca in a press release.

For the study, published in Animal Cognition, Vila-Pouca and Brown played jazz music from speakers situated at one end of a tank, training juvenile Port Jackson sharks to swim to a feeding station to get their reward. Out of the eight sharks, five seemed to recognise the particular rhythms of jazz music and associate them with a good time.

But, as Brown said, sharks can’t immediately distinguish between genres. When played both jazz and classical music out of different speakers positioned at either end of a tank, the sharks appeared confused as to which station they should swim to in order to get their treats.

“It was obvious that the sharks knew that they had to do something when the classical music was played, but they couldn’t figure out that they had to go to a different location,” said Brown. “The task is harder than it sounds, because the sharks had to learn that different locations were associated with a particular genre of music, which was then paired with a food reward. Perhaps with more training they would have figured it out.”

“Sharks are generally underestimated when it comes to learning abilities – most people see them as mindless, instinctive animals,” added Vila-Pouca. “However, they have really big brains and are obviously much smarter than we give them credit for. Gaining a better understanding of this will help grow positive public opinion and may shift public and political will towards their conservation.”