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Scientists Find A Species Of Sharks With Strong Social Ties

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Sharks are often portrayed as Hollywood monsters - lone wolves in search of prey.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

But a new study provides more evidence that some sharks can be social and stick together in large groups.

YANNIS PAPASTAMATIOU: They form these sort of spatially structured social groups where they hang out with the same individuals over multiple years.

KELLY: Yannis Papastamatiou runs the Predator Ecology and Conservation Lab at Florida International University. His team studied grey reef sharks at an atoll in the central Pacific.

SHAPIRO: They tagged 41 of the animals with location transmitters and outfitted several sharks with little video cameras on their fins.

PAPASTAMATIOU: So we're really getting a shark-eye view of what they're doing. What we were seeing was group sizes of about 20 individuals.

KELLY: And what they found - some of the social groups persisted the entire length of the study, up to four years. That is longer than previous studies have observed.

SHAPIRO: David Shiffman studies shark ecology and conservation at Arizona State University, and he says he was pretty surprised by the news.

DAVID SHIFFMAN: The groupings stayed pretty stable. The same individuals hang out together not only day after day, but year after year. I mean, I don't have a lot of friends that I do that with.

KELLY: Now as for why the sharks form these cliques, Papastamatiou says social groups might boost the hunting success of everybody involved.

PAPASTAMATIOU: If we hang out together and I see something, then you can come and try and take advantage of that. And alternatively, if you see something, then I can try and take advantage of that.

SHAPIRO: He says these tips from friends could be one factor that helped shark society evolve. And it's a more complex community than we thought, more akin to that of birds or even mammals. The details are in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

KELLY: And just as these sharks might learn where dinner is by congregating with their peers, Shiffman says the social abilities of sharks do not stop there.

SHIFFMAN: An individual shark can be taught to solve a simple puzzle, and another shark can solve that puzzle just by watching the first shark do it.

KELLY: He says, maybe it's time to lose our prejudices about sharks.

SHIFFMAN: It turns out they're a lot smarter than most people think. And they have more complex social behaviors and more complex abilities to process their environment and learn and change.

SHAPIRO: As for what to call a group of sharks, well, the name still evokes fear. It's known as a shiver of sharks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SVEN LIBAEK'S "ATTACKING SHARKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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