The joint study between researchers at The University of Western Australia and The University of Queensland looked at the potential for colour vision in a number of Australian shark species.
Associate Professor Nathan Hart and his team measured the light-sensitive cells in the sharks’ eyes using a specialised instrument called a microspectrophotometer and concluded that they have only one type of cone photoreceptor in the retina.
“Humans have three cone types that are sensitive to blue, green and red light, respectively, and by comparing signals from the different cone types we get the sensation of colour vision,” Professor Hart said.
“However, we found that sharks have only a single cone type and by conventional reckoning this means that they don’t have colour vision.”
“It has long been assumed that sharks have some sort of colour vision and indeed have a preference for certain colours.
“The term ‘yum, yum yellow’ was coined when it was discovered, in tests by the US Navy, that some species of shark were attracted more to yellow than to other colours; this was of concern as the Navy wanted to supply its sailors with yellow life vests that would be more visible in rescue situations.
“Our study shows that contrast against the background, rather than colour per se, may be more important for object detection by sharks, and this may help us to design long-line fishing lures that are less attractive to sharks-whilst still effective for the target fish species-and thus help to reduce the massive by-catch of sharks in this industry.”
One of the shark species studied by Professor Hart and his colleagues, the bull shark Carcharhinus leucas, is responsible for numerous attacks on humans. The bull shark is an aggressive species and often inhabits shallow, murky water close to human habitations.
“Now we know a bit more about how such sharks see the world, it may be possible to design swimming attire and surf craft that have a lower visual contrast to sharks and, therefore, are less ‘attractive’ to them. After all, most shark attacks are thought to be the result of curiosity on the part of a shark that has been attracted to an unusual stimulus, rather than some premeditated ambush.”
The findings of the research are described in the paper “Microspectrophotometric evidence for cone monochromacy in sharks”, co-authored by WA Premier’s Research Fellow Winthrop Professor Shaun Collin and Drs Susan Theiss and Blake Harahush of the University of Queensland, to be published in the international journal Naturwissenschaften – The Science of Nature.