Monday, 21 November 2011

Thoughtful Sharks : Self Awareness

As described in my former posting (below), the blackfin reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) I was able to study closely for many years, demonstrate that they know each other as individuals in a variety of ways, one of which is their tendency to travel with a preferred companion. This pattern of swimming with a companion may have facilitated their acceptance of me, permitting me to swim over long periods of time with different individuals and learn where they went and how they passed their days.
They spend much of their time in home ranges, familiar regions where they prefer to be. Such areas are not defended in the way that territories are, so sharks with overlapping home ranges know each other. When they travel, they often go with one or more of these “neighbours”. They follow circular paths hundreds of feet across, oriented in different directions so that from above, their path has the shape of figure eights or cloverleafs. Following such circling pathways, they repeatedly cross each others' scent trails and thus remain in loose contact while moving together, yet they are rarely within visual range of each other.
It became apparent through a variety of types of observations, that these sharks are accustomed to being in contact with others while remaining out of visual range.
Further, in a variety of situations they hid behind the limits of visibility to observe something without showing themselves. Sometimes, they came into view for a brief look, but other times they were capable of staying hidden for long periods, waiting, while I thought that they had left the area.
One illustration of this unexpected behaviour occurred during a period in which I was medicating a sick shark. Night after night I waited for him, holding his medicated food out of the water while encircled by a whirlwind of healthier sharks who wanted to get the treat instead. Each night I had to think up some new tactic to get the medicine to the sick one, because the others always seemed to be one step ahead of me. 
Some of the sharks waited beyond visual range for me to throw the food, then zoomed in at top speed and snatched it the moment they heard it splash into the water, before the sick shark, or any others present, noticed what I had done.
Their actions indicate that they were concentrating on (observing) what I was doing from beyond the visual limit, and waiting in expectation for a signal that they knew. They were holding a mental representation of the signal in mind, with the intention of acting when it came.
On some days I travelled a long way looking for the sick shark. The rest of the group of fifteen to thirty sharks followed, remaining out of visual range until the right moment.
One juvenile shark always followed me from the moment I arrived in the lagoon until the moment I left, showing herself only about four times in the two hours I usually spent there, though I could check on her continuing presence beyond the veiling light, by ceasing to swim ahead, and waiting.
The sharks I knew always came straight up to my face when they saw me, in an apparent greeting gesture, while shy strangers waited out of sight, only briefly passing into view from time to time until they felt confident enough for closer approaches. Sometimes a shy shark would suddenly come from behind me for a close look. If I looked above the surface, that was when a curious shark would come up to me for a look or a sniff. They clearly used the knowledge of whether I could see them at a given moment opportunistically.
Once a lemon shark came early to a stormy evening session with my sharks, in which I was obliged to cling to my kayak to remain stable in the torrential current. He came and went as if I weren’t there, and it was easy to imagine that he had not seen me. He had been out of sight for fifteen minutes when I drifted away from the boat, whereon he immediately appeared, passing just within visible range to investigate the kayak. He had been aware of me, and keeping track of my location; he came to investigate my kayak as soon as he could do so while remaining out of sight.
Sharks are self-aware to the degree of being aware of being present and observable. Since any animal is a self-serving entity, seeking food for the self, protecting the self, saving the self, and so forth, it is logical that to be aware of the self, as distinct from others and the environment, would result in survival benefits. Thus, evolution, through natural selection, must favour self-awareness.
Much of our train of thought is automatic. We tend to think all the time, just as our hearts beat all the time. The predominant nature of thought in our subjective experience suggests that its roots are deep in our nervous system, and argues against the position that thinking is a recent evolutionary development. The way this automatic flow of thought tends to centre on the interests of the self, further supports the hypothesis that self-awareness and self-interest were selected for, and are likely primary in other species as well.
The originator of the scientific field of cognitive ethology, Donald R. Griffin (Animal Minds 2001), argued that when an animal hid itself from human view, it was demonstrating its awareness of itself. 
He described how Lance A. Olsen had reported that grizzly bears sought places from which they could watch hunters while remaining hidden. Other observers had reported that bears tried to avoid leaving tracks. The researchers concluded that these bears were aware of being present and observable as well as creating effects―their tracks―through their movements, which could be seen by others.
The sharks’ habitual way of remaining concealed behind the veiling light until an opportunistic moment, or approaching from behind to avoid being seen, is in the same category.

(c) Ila France Porcher

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Thoughtful Sharks : Knowing Others as Individuals

In Tahiti, I observed the reef sharks inhabiting the nearby lagoon. They soon accepted me into their community, and by noting the behaviour of each individual in a variety of situations over a period of many years, I found an unknown dimension of their lives, never before observed or documented. This included much evidence that the sharks were using cognition, or thinking, in their daily activities, rather than the automatic stimulus/response reactions that had been assumed to control their behaviour.

To illustrate the difference between automatic behaviour and cognition, consider a calculation. The act of calculating, which is so easily and swiftly accomplished by computers, is analogous to automatic behaviour. But understanding the reason for the computation requires cognition, which the computer will never achieve.

Various domains of science use different definitions of cognition, but for me as an ethologist, the most straightforward definition is : the purposeful manipulation of mental representations. (For more information, see the section on cognition on my website at: or the chapter "More on Thinking in Animals" in my book.)

Recognition of others as individuals has long been established in fish and sharks, and is necessary for the complex social lives in which cognition is most evident.

In the sharks I observed, the tendency of the blackfin reef sharks (Carcharhinus melanopterus) to travel with favoured companions, was one indication that they knew each other as individuals. An unusual and telling example involved the visits of two elderly female companions to my study area each year for four years, during the dark of the moon at the end of April, and at no other time. They came together and left together, and I never learned where they came from, so it must have been very far away. For the last two years they were accompanied by a third elderly shark whose home range was about two kilometers farther along the lagoon. Unlike them, she returned every few months after her initial visit to the region.

I documented many other companionships, showing that both female sharks and the males, who lived in the ocean beyond the lagoon, had favoured companions of the same gender. Each individual was different. Some sharks often travelled alone, and others changed companions relatively frequently. Often, companions were joined temporarily by residents of the regions through which they travelled.

One shark who tended to be a loner, joined two companions whose home ranges over-lapped hers, when the three ventured into a new, and possibly uncertain, situation. They approached in triangular formation, the loner taking the position in front of the companions, who followed swimming side by side, equidistant from her and from each other. I saw the same three sharks take this formation on several occasions over the years, always in new circumstances.

Observations that at least some species of sharks and rays choose which members of the opposite gender with whom they wish to mate, provides further evidence that they know each other as individuals.

All fishes have elaborate forebrains, and the degree of forebrain development has been correlated with social behaviour and communication, abilities which are integrated with cognition. Fish continue to develop neurons throughout their lives and do so at a faster rate in a stimulating environment, indicating a link between experience and neural development. Studies indicate that the ratio of brain to body size in sharks overlaps that of mammals and birds, and learning is considered to play an important role in their lives.

Memories are invoked in learning, and the memories of facts that are available for mental reference are called declarative memories, indicating consciousness. Several researchers have concluded that learning in fish calls on declarative memories and that fish are conscious animals.

That a particular shark will seek out and return to just one other shark in its travels, among all of the sharks present, is one example of a situation in which the animal is referencing declarative memories—the memories of the companion. I have seen a visiting shark arrive with its companion, in a place where many other sharks were circling, and swim nose to tail, or in parallel with, one shark after another, socializing over long periods before rejoining the companion with which it had arrived.

But my observations were cut short when the population was finned for the shark fin soup market. While they were being massacred, I wrote down their story so that the world would find out what they were like and what happened. The exciting story of this mysterious community beneath the sea, that was terminated by a shark finning company from Singapore, is recorded in my book: "My Sunset Rendezvous : Crisis in Tahiti."

The sharks' capacity to think and feel provides another crucial reason to save them from extinction, as well as their importance ecologically.  Knowing of their cognitive abilities, shark behaviour will never seem the same again, and the world-wide, barbaric massacre of sharks for the profit brought in by just their fins, becomes even more tragic. 

©  Ila France Porcher
author of "My Sunset Rendezvous : Crisis in Tahiti"

References :
Bshary R, Wickler W, Fricke H (2002) Fish cognition: a primate's eye view. Animal Cognition (2002) 5 : 1-13
Butler, Ann B. and William Hodos (1996) Comparative Vertebrate Neuroanatomy: Evolution and Adaptation. New York: Wiley-Liss, 514 pp
Chandroo KP, Yue S, and Mocci RD (2004) An evaluation of current perspectives on consciousness and pain in fishes. Fish and Fisheries 5. 281-295
Gödel, K. 1931Über formal unentscheidebarre Sätze der Principia Mathamtica und verwandler System IMonathshefte für Mathematik und Physik , 38 pp. 173-198
Gruber, S.H. and Myrberg, A.A. 1977. Approaches to Study of Behavior of Sharks. American Zoologist 17, 471-486.
Guttridge, T. L., Myrberg, A. A., Porcher, I. F., Sims, D. W. and Krause, J. (2009), The role of learning in shark behaviour. Fish and Fisheries, 10:450–469.
Kotrschal K, Van Staaden M. J. Huber R. (1998), Fish brains : evolution and environmental relationships. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 8, 373-408
Lovibond PF, Shanks DR (2002) The role of awareness in Pavlovian conditioning: empirical evidence and theoretical implication. Journal of Experimental Psychology 28 3-26
Overmier JB, Hollis KL (1990) Fish in the think tank: learning, memory, and integrated behaviour. Neurobiology of Comparative Cognition (eds Kesner RP, Olson DS), Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsday, NJ. pp. 205-236
Penrose, R, (1990) The Emperor's New Mind. Oxford University Press
Maren S (2001) Neurobiology of Pavlovian fear conditioning. Annual Review of Neuroscience 24. 897-931
Northcutt, RG. 1977. Elasmobranch Central Nervous-System Organization and Its Possible Evolutionary Significance. American Zoologist 17, 411-429.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Channel Twelve News on CBS

Due to the urgent need to save sharks from extinction, CBS here in Florida aired an interview with me on the subject.
You can see it on my website at :
Just click on the menu bar on the left hand side labelled "My Sunset Rendezvous" and you will see the link on the right.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Press Release

May 3, 2011

Author and shark behavior researcher 
visits South Florida

Ila France Porcher, researcher of wild shark behavior, and author of "My Sunset Rendezvous," is in South Florida this month giving a series of informative presentations on the intelligence and social behavior of sharks. Her talk shares the excitement of her unique method of finding things out about sharks, which are often killed for science and studied dead.

From 1995 until 2009 she established never before achieved intimacy with the reef sharks that inhabited the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia.

During this intensive ethological study, she made some intriguing discoveries and had many strange and startling experiences. When the Internet became available, she began to connect with other scientists across the world, comparing her observations, while accumulating evidence about sharks that transcends common beliefs. Her book is the story of this study, set in the framework of life in the islands, and the shocking aftermath.

She and the late Professor Arthur A. Myrberg Jr., formerly of the University of Miami, found evidence of cognition (thinking) in sharks, and the degree to which they are social creatures.

Contacted by the BBC as a result of this work, she contributed her findings on shark cognition and social intelligence to the widely seen documentary “Sharks: Size Matters” for Discovery Channel’s "Shark Week."

In "My Sunset Rendezvous," the author takes you with her into increasing intimacy with each of the reef sharks, where new discoveries are laid out for the finding in the alien beauty of a coral lagoon. Her thrilling true story takes place underwater and the characters are the sharks, each identified by its unique appearance and markings. Learning about these fascinating creatures of the deep has become a memoir of a different kind in this remarkable account.

She hopes that animal lovers who had not considered sharks before, will finally appreciate the true nature of this misunderstood class of animals that is worth protecting from extinction due to overfishing.

New Zealand filmmaker Alan Baddock said of her book: “Your clarity of intent is stunning and beautiful. As a wordsmith, I recognise and acknowledge rare mastery. As a traveller who has picked up and cast aside the best of world literature in a thousand hostelries on half a dozen continents and countless islands, I recognise a book I would share with people I considered friends … Three chapters into a subject I am not especially interested in, I am waiting with a low, gnawing hunger for more. That alone tells me I have found something special.”

Porcher's calendar of events is swiftly filling, so if you would like to have her speak to your group or organization, or interview her, please contact her at: or 561 840 6571.

Notes to the editor:

For further information about Ila France Porcher's work, see her website at www.theplayof Click on "My Sunset Rendezvous" on the left-hand menu on the first page to hear her radio interview -- orange button at the top of the page -- which shows her abilities as a compelling speaker.

Ila France Porcher is known for her shark activism, her wildlife art, her new discoveries that illustrate the little-known intelligence and gentler nature of sharks, and for her articles on animal intelligence and cognition.

She was a driving force behind the "Year of the Shark" project in 2009, which used the power of internet to generate many new projects for shark protection globally. It resulted in a powerful grass roots movement for shark protection that is still expanding.

She published an article in the scientific journal "Marine Biology" describing the reproductive cycle of C. melanopterus and was commended by the reviewers on finding a way of studying sharks without killing them, which was said to be as important as the discovery of their gestation period.

The contact number for Ila France Porcher is : 561 840 6571 

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

See the latest issue of Beyond Blue!

There is a long article about My Sunset Rendezvous in the latest issue, issue 10, of the Journal Beyond Blue. You can download it at: 

There is also an article on shark protection that strongly credits 2009, The Year of the Shark Project, with having given significant impetus to the initiation of many shark protection projects globally. It says that the influence of the Year of the Shark continues to this day. 

This is certainly something to be pleased about, for those of us who worked so hard on it.