Marine Biology

How Sharks use Math to Hunt

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"How Sharks use Math to Hunt"
Caption: Shark
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Humans aren’t the only creatures that use math in their daily lives. Unbelievably, sharks use math as well to hunt for prey. How is this possible?

According to a report published June 9 in Nature, a behavior called the Lévy walk. This movement pattern is not simply a random flight towards potential prey. The trajectory of a Lévy walk looks much like a fractal — a shape which remains the same regardless of the scale on which it is viewed.

Researchers say Lévy behavior is common in animals ranging from bees to deer; however, some cite the studies as inaccurate. However, scientists have compelling evidence that 14 species of marine predators, including sharks, use Lévy behavior to hunt.

Theoretical physicist Gandhimohan Viswanathan from the Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil explains animals do use math. “Living organisms, when allowed to make freely willed decisions, seem to end up obeying some kind of mathematical law,” he explains.

Researcher David Sims from the UK’s Marine Biological Association explains the research can sometimes be flawed. “Patchy data could mean you think you have a Lévy flight when you haven’t,” says Sims. However, Sims and his fellow researchers do claim to have solid evidence of Lévy behavior in 14 ocean predators, including sharks. Surprisingly, great white sharks do not use the “Lévy walk” to hunt prey. Sims’ research spanned 5,700 days and collected 12 million points of data.

Sims’ research showed the Lévy behavior most prevalent in areas where fish and plankton were scarce. In areas where prey is abundant, random hunting motion dominates. The other marine species who use this behavior to hunt include sunfish, billfish, tuna and harks, to name several.

Not all scientists are as excited about the mathematical Lévy behavior. Ecologist Simon Benhamou from the National Center for Scientific Research in Montpellier, France, has his doubts. Although Benhamou hasn’t analyzed the research, he claims errors in statistical data can indicate Lévy behavior where there is none. Benhamou also says these studies erroneously suggest predators are “fully stupid, unable to process information and act accordingly” when faced with environmental changes.

Physicist H. Eugene Stanley from Boston University disagrees. “From the biological point of view, it makes sense that this way of searching should evolve,” he says.

Despite the varying opinions of scientists and researchers, the “Lévy walk” is still fascinating marine behavior and demonstrates that sharks and other ocean creatures are far more intelligent than most people realize.

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