Sharks follow their noses home

leopard shark

Scientists have hypothesized that both birds and sharks might use smell to navigate. Tracking-tag data from leopard sharks provides the first evidence that the animals do use smell to find their way.

Kyle McBurnie (CC BY 2.0

Earth’s magnetic field guides shark movement in the open ocean, but scientists had always suspected that sharks might also get their directions from an array of other factors, including smell.  

To sniff out smell’s role, biologists clogged the noses of leopard sharks (Triakis semifasciata), a Pacific coastal species that makes foraging trips out to deeper waters. Researchers released the sharks out at sea and tracked their path back to the California coast over four hours. Sharks with an impaired sense of smell only made it 37.2 percent of the way back to shore, while unimpaired sharks made it 62.6 percent of the way back to shore.

The study provides the first experimental evidence that smell influences a shark’s sense of direction, the team writes January 6 in PLOS ONE. The animals may be picking up on chemical gradients produced by food sources that live on the coast. 

Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson is the associate digital editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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