Can sharks smile? It’s Shark Week on the Discovery Channel
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Can sharks smile?
Many animals show feelings. We’ve all seen examples of animals showing happiness, anger or fear. And dogs, monkeys and dolphins, for example, all show expressions akin to human smiles. But sharks? Sharks do sometimes look as if they’re smiling. They’re often portrayed in books and movies as smiling. But scientists say it’s not likely sharks can or do smile. Unlike dogs, monkeys and dolphins, sharks are fish. And, in sharks and other fish, the parts of the brain related to feelings aren’t developed enough to produce a smile, according to scientists.
Yet sharks do communicate, by twisting their bodies into certain positions. And they act differently from day to day, depending on how much food they’ve eaten or how cold the water is. Scientists call those things behaviors, not emotions.
And even though a shark’s body is made of flexible cartilage, its jaws are rigid and calcified. A strong jaw lets a shark pulverize its food. But the same rigidity makes a true shark smile impossible.
Did you see the Disney film Finding Nemo? Then you know Bruce, who is almost always smiling and whose refrain is: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food.”
20th anniversary! Finding Nemo (2003), screenplay by Andrew Stanton & Bob Peterson & David Reynolds, screens in 35mm this Saturday & Sunday July 8th & 9th, at 2:00pm. pic.twitter.com/RSNH5kseZb
— New Beverly Cinema (@newbeverly) July 5, 2023
Smiles are a form of communication
Smiling seems to be instinctual in people as a basic form of communication. When someone smiles, we usually read the smile as happiness. Likewise, in humans, a frown signals sadness.
And scientists can’t possibly know everything. Maybe we just don’t understand how to read the emotions of a fish. Marine biologist Steven Webster, now retired from Monterey Bay Aquarium and currently head of Sea Studios Foundation, once told EarthSky:
We don’t know if fish or turtles have emotions. And we’ll never know. It could be that sharks are out there chuckling and writing poetry every day, and they just don’t share it with us.
But for now, as far as scientists understand it, sharks and other fish aren’t capable of smiling. That’s despite the fact that some really look as if they’re smiling.
Photo by Brian Skerry
— Henry Söderlund (@henrysoderlund) July 3, 2023
What do scientists say?
So, according to scientists, it’s not likely that sharks can smile. And scientists warn against reading too much into animal faces and behaviors. That sort of anthropomorphizing – attributing human form or behavior to animals – can get in the way of scientific objectivity.
Still, future scientists are sure to discover more about sharks’ relationship with their world, giving us all a better glimpse into the lives of the creatures who co-inhabit planet Earth with us.
Of course many other animals – including our beloved pets – appear to smile.
This puppy is always smiling pic.twitter.com/Dw4GLvqK1f
— Animal Lover (@Animal_fanlover) April 23, 2023
Bottom line: Can sharks smile? Not likely. But dogs, monkeys and dolphins all show expressions akin to human smiles.