New research indicates that sharks react to air pressure changes, predicting bad weather

PhD student Lauren Smith tested dogfish reactions to minute pressure changes inside a hyperbaric chamber to demonstrate her theory

Shark oil in a bottle has been used to predict severe weather on the island of Bermuda for centuries, however a study of juvenile lemon sharks in the Bahamas has produced evidence for the first time that sharks sense and react to changes in atmospheric pressure – essentially predicting oncoming bad weather.

Marine Biology student Lauren Smith tested the lesser spotted dogfish (a near relation of the lemon shark) at the University of Aberdeen altitude chamber to test her theories following her tests in the Bahamas. And while it’s thought hers is the first study to focus on this theory, it first came about nearly over seven years ago.

An earlier shark study in Florida, coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Gabrielle in 2001. Observations suggested that juvenile blacktip sharks moved into deeper water in association with the approaching storm.

If Lauren’s studies prove the theory, scientists in the future could conceivably monitor the behaviour of sharks to anticipate severe weather fronts.

She said: “Who can say if this could lead to sharks predicting weather fronts, there’s so much more we need to understand. But it certainly opens the way to more research.”

Dr Peter Fraser, Lauren’s supervisor at the University of Aberdeen was the first to establish that a shark senses pressure using hair cells in its vestibular system.

Work at the Bimini Shark Lab enabled her to observe shark behaviour by placing data logging tags to record pressure and temperature on juvenile lemon sharks, while also tracking them using acoustic tags and GPS technology. This let her determine the exact movements of the juveniles, the first time hydrostatic pressure sensing of sharks in situ has been approached in this way.

Back at base in Aberdeen, she was able to study the effects of tidal and temperature changes on dogfish in the aquarium at the Zoology building. She was pleased to find she could also test the pressure theory by recreating weather conditions at the University of Aberdeen chamber at the National Hyperbaric Centre.