Mental Maps in Sharks

Mental maps are interesting. I recently heard about reserch being done at the University of Minnesota in which it can be shown that rats develop a mental map of a maze, then later, when faced with moments of decision, pause in real space to run through alternative routes of the map in their heads. They have also been observed to dream the maps. We know that certain birds develop mental maps of their long distance migration routes, and these maps can be identified and differentiated in the neural tissue. Now, there is research showing that sharks have mental maps.

Some shark species make “mental maps” of their home ranges, allowing them to pin-point destinations up to 50km (30 miles) away, research suggests.

US-based scientists analysed data from tiger sharks tagged with acoustic transmitters, and found that they took directed paths from place to place.

Other species such as blacktip reef sharks did not show this behaviour.

Funny how all these animals with much less cultural learning and much less cerebral tissue (relatively speaking) have complex and detailed neural information that is entirely learned, but when humans vary in almost any way related to behavior there are so many people who insist that it must be caused by information encoded over the ages in their genes.

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8 thoughts on “Mental Maps in Sharks

  1. as a physicist i wonder just how they determine things like this. what, you ask the rat/shark what it is thinking?

    pretty cool, but very hard to interpret i would think.

    suppose i should look up the papers, eh?

  2. Much of this map work done in rats is by recording from neurons in the hippocampus while the rat runs through a maze. Neurons called, ‘place cells’, will respond only at particular places in the maze.

    If you keep recording from such neurons while the rat rests, you can see the place cells reactivate in a sequence as though the rat was running through the maze.

    I haven’t read any papers dealing specifically with the activity of these neurons when the rat is faced with a decision, my best guess from Greg’s post is that they found place cells for the upcoming portion of the maze activating in sequence when the rat approached a place in the maze where it branches and the rat needs to decide which way to go.

  3. One of my proud boast from my teaching days is an acknowledgment on a paper about mental maps in sharks–Port Jackson sharks in and around Sydney Harbour. I had a student who had taken a medical retirement after a reduced oxygen supply during an operation. He had been a Professor of Zoology (Ken O’Gower) and found it frustrating to have such reduced mental function so he became a distance education student with us and ended up getting a BA majoring in Archaeology). One of the units he took was my unit on language origins when I was at my most fierce about the cognitive implications of language (which included a scepticism about the mental maps literature–not my proudest moment). He told me of his data on mental maps (spatial memory) in Port Jackson sharks and I asked where it was published. He said it was not, but was stimulated by my scepticism to publish a paper. I must say I think the mental maps data on chimps is remarkably convincing. And I am now much more relaxed about the whole thing, and presumably the capacity to embed a GPS chip in a variety of animals will enable us to get huge amounts more data, so it will be seen to be the primitive feature that the shark data implies.

  4. O’Gower, K. 1995 Speculations on a Spatial Memory for the Port Jackson Shark (Heterodontus portusjacksoni) (Meyer) (Heterodontidae). Marine and freshwater research 46:861-871.

  5. Shark 1: Whaddya say we head over to La Turista beach for lunch? It’s only about 25k away.

    Shark 2: You mean the one where you take a right at that big elkhorn coral just after the shipwreck?

    Shark 1: Yeah, remember? We shared a swimmer’s leg there last year!

    Shark 2: Oh, yeah, they’re tasty this time of year! I am so there!

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