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Keywords:

  • Behaviour;
  • ecotourism;
  • elasmobranch;
  • foraging;
  • navigation;
  • predator

Abstract

The role of learning in behaviour is well known for many animal taxa, including teleost fishes, insects, birds and mammals. However, its importance to sharks in everyday behavioural processes has rarely been considered. Almost 50 years ago the first learning experiments on sharks were conducted; our first section discusses these studies and places them in a framework of associative and non-associative learning. These experiments showed that sharks were capable of different forms of learning, such as operant and classical conditioning and habituation. Sharks could learn associations as rapidly as other vertebrates and also remember training regimes for several months. However, much of this experimental evidence was based on small sample sizes and few shark orders, such as Carcharhiniformes and Orectobliformes, leaving large gaps in our knowledge of the general learning capabilities of other shark orders. We also examine recent research that has tested for, or inferred learning in behavioural processes. This section reveals that sharks, like teleost fishes use learning to improve prey search and capture to potentially navigate and orientate in their home range and recognize conspecifics, heterospecifics and mates. Learning is also discussed in relation to ecotourism and fisheries. Findings indicated that these activities may lead to conditioning of sharks and that considerable effort should go into investigating what impact this could have on the shark species involved. Finally, we discuss the importance of combining laboratory experiments with field studies, the use of new experimental techniques, the role of model species and research priorities for future work.