They have been training baby Port Jackson sharks to associate music with rewards, and whenever the sharks were played a jazz number, they soon learnt to go to a feeding station for a food treat.  

“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 lead author Catarina Vila-Pouca from the university’s Department of Biological Sciences.

However, the scientists also wanted to find out if they could get the sharks to associate different food locations with distinct musical genres, and found that there were limits to the animals’ musical sophistication, because they had trouble distinguishing between jazz and classical themes.

“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 Associate Professor Culum Brown, leader of The Fish Lab.

“Perhaps with more training they would have figured it out.”  

The study was inspired by the way in which sharks come to associate feeding with sounds like those of boat-engines, as occurs with shark cage-diving. The scientists concluded that such aural links could be established relatively quickly.

“Sharks are generally under-estimated when it comes to learning abilities – most people see them as mindless, instinctive animals,” said 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 of sharks and may shift public and political will towards their conservation.”

The study has just been published in Animal Cognition.

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