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Shark Senses – How Do Sharks Hunt Their Prey?

shark senses ampullae of lorenzeni

Perfectly evolved over 500 million years and surviving 5 mass extinction events, sharks are true super predators. So how do they do it? What’s senses come in to play as sharks hone in on their prey? Here’s a quick look at each of the shark senses, and how each help make them successful predators.

Shark Senses – Long Range

Hearing. A long range and highly developed sense, the auditory system of sharks can also give important information about potential prey. This will often occur well before the animal is in visual range. They are especially tuned in to low frequency sounds, the kind made by a wounded or struggling fish, and are able to detect them often from distances greater than a kilometer away!

The Sense of Smell. It’s true, sharks have a great sense of smell. You may have heard some of those interesting little factoids such as sharks being able to smell a drop of blood in an olympic sized swimming pool. Well, it’s not far off from the truth. Sharks sense of smell (olfaction) is remarkably effective and fine tuned to pick up the amino acids in proteins, such as blood. Studies have shown sharks to be able to detect 1 part per 20 million parts water! This is likely one of the first senses that clues sharks in to potential prey items at a distance.

Shark Senses – Mid Range

Vision. Contrary to some myths out there, sharks actually have good eyesight, as far as fish are concerned. They lack color vision and only see in black and white, but still possess the visual sensory equipment to produce focused images. Water conditions play a big role and low light or murky water will have a big impact on their visual acuity. Take a look at our blog focused on Shark Vision for more details.

The Lateral Line – Mechanosense. Sharks have evolved another sense that is quite foreign to humans. The lateral line system is a series of canals located throughout the sharks body with openings to the skin. It allows for water to enter and is very sensitive to picking up water movements. Because of this, sharks are able to tune in to the vibrations caused by wounded or struggling fish, again helping them to hone in on potential prey.

shark lateral line
Shark Lateral Line System – illustration by Chris Huh


Shark Senses – Close Range

Ampullae of Lorenzini – Electrosense. Another sense unfamiliar to us is electrosense, the shark’s ability to detect the weak electrical field given off by all living things. This highly tuned sense is thanks to countless small pores located throughout the sharks skin, mostly concentrated around the snout, and called the ampullae of Lorenzini. These gel filled pores help amplify these weak electrical signals allowing sharks to detect prey even if it’s completely hidden, such as in the sand. It’s effective at close range, typically within 1 meter or less.

shark senses ampullae of lorenzeni
Shark Electroreception – illustration by Chris Huh

Touch. Obviously a close range sense, sharks will often bump potential prey items before taking a bite to get a better sense of what they’re dealing with. Lacking hands, it’s common for sharks to investigate items in the water column by hitting with their snout or even “feeling” with their mouths. This is the reason for the often described bump and bite scenario, and also a reason that we let divers know they cannot let sharks bump into them, as it’s often followed by a test bite.

Taste. Like us, sharks have taste buds in their mouths, making it the final sense involved in determining if a shark has found it’s next meal, or made a mistake. We have no idea what tastes good to a shark, but given the frequency that shark-human interactions only end in a single bite, and our terrestrial nature, it seems we are certainly not on the top of the shark menu.


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