How Many Senses Does a Shark Have?

We learn early on that humans have five senses: vision, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. As we learn more about ourselves, we come to understand that we can also sense such things as hunger, pain, and temperature. Most of us also claim a 'sense' of humor and style, although we recognize that this is not the same kind of sense as vision or hearing. As we learn more about the world around us, we learn that many animals have astoundingly acute senses, including several that we do not.

We humans are fascinated by these 'extra' senses. Inevitably, and despite the fact that many of them are beyond our experience or understanding, we want to know what these other senses detect and how well. Which brings us to sharks. Sharks are most famous for their phenomenal sense of smell. But, depending upon which book or authority one consults, sharks may have as many as 13 sensory systems - eight more than we are accustomed to. But do they really?

All sensory systems depend on receptor cells that respond to energy or chemicals in the environment by changing their electric charge. This electric change, in turn, induces a series of events that signal the brain, where the environmental energy or chemical is interpreted. In practice, there are only a few fundamental ways of accomplishing this neat trick.

Consider the senses of smell and taste. These are usually regarded as separate experiences: we smell with our nostrils and taste with our tongues. Yet both these senses function in precisely the same way: a chemical sample is dissolved in a watery fluid so that it fits into a receptor cell like a key inside a lock. The tightness of this chemical fit dictates the nature of the electrical signal sent to the brain. Since smell and taste are based on the same mechanism, they can be thought of as different versions of the same basic sense, chemoreception (chemo = chemical, reception = to receive).

If we were to group all of our senses - no matter how different they may seem - by fundamental mechanism, we discover that we do not really have five senses at all. We have only three: photoreception (vision), chemoreception (smell and taste), and mechanoreception (touch and hearing). Similarly, sharks do not have 13 senses, they have four: the three we have plus electroreception.

Electroreception is found in many marine and freshwater fishes, several amphibians, as well as a few mammals. These electrosensitive mammals include the 'primitive' egg-laying monotremes - the Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), the Short-Beaked (Tachyglossus aculeatus) and Long-Beaked (Zaglossus bruijni) Echidnas - and at least one 'higher' placental mammal, the Star-Nosed Mole (Condylura cristata). All vertebrates share a common ancestor. Since the ability to sense electric fields has re-appeared several times in discrete vertebrate lineages, electroreception must be a very ancient ability.

Thus, at some time in our long-forgotten past, our distant mammalian ancestors were probably sensitive to weak electric fields. This mysterious voice continues to speak clearly to sharks and a mere handful of other creatures, but is now lost to us. It is difficult to not feel a little short-changed. But we can take some pride in that, of all the species with whom we share this planet, we are the only ones who can sense the loss of something we have never known.

Photoreception

Eyes Vision
Pineal Organ Ambient Light Levels
Endolymphatic Duct Ambient Light Levels
 

Mechanoreception

Inner ear Audition (Hearing),
Attitude (Yaw, Pitch, Role),
Acceleration
Lateral line Ambient vibrations
Spiracular organ Ambient vibrations
Touch receptors Pressure, Pain, Heat
Proprioceptors Muscle tension,
Stomach distension,
Fin position, etc.
Hair cells Ambient vibrations
 

Chemoreception

Nasal lamellae Olfaction (Smell)
Taste buds Gustation (Taste)
Pit organs (free neuromasts) Gustation?
 

Electroreception

Ampullae of Lorenzini

Ambient electrical fields,
Temperature

 

 

ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research
Text and illustrations R. Aidan Martin
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