Sensitive Sharks: Do Sharks Feel Pain?

do sharks feel pain

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For decades sharks have been portrayed to be mindless man-eating killers in Hollywood films such as “JAWS”, but this is really not the case.

Sharks are much more intelligent than given credit for, they’re capable of complex behaviors, being trained, and even feeling emotions.

Today, we’re going to answer a question that has been asked for many years. “Do sharks feel pain?”

YES, sharks do feel pain. Whilst the pain they experience is not the same as how land mammals feel it, they do experience it.

Let’s take a closer look…

Do Sharks Really Feel Pain?

A stance popular among fishermen is that sharks do not feel pain, justifying their action of dismembering sharks alive, chopping their fins off, and allowing them to suffocate on the deck.

Sharks DO feel pain, but it’s not like how pain is experienced in other animals. Whilst their nervous system is not the same as land mammals, they do experience some form of pain.

The confusion comes as sharks do not feel pain like other animals do, they show no signs of feeling pain.

This is because sharks lack nociceptors and do not respond to noxious stimuli as teleost fish typically do.

do sharks feel pain
Image: Jessica via Flickr

For example, some species of shark such as the hammerhead feed on stingrays and have been found to have as many as 96 stingray barbs embedded in their mouths.

This would be enough to stop any other animal from eating, right?

Not hammerheads, they will continue hunting stingrays and feeding even with all of these barbs in their mouth, so it’s clear they do not experience pain in the same way you might expect.

Sharks that are completely disemboweled or have been severely injured by other sharks will continue on their path like nothing has happened.

How Much Pain Do Sharks Feel Pain?

The difficult part of measuring a shark’s pain threshold is that we typically relate the amount of pain something is experiencing to how much noise they make and how they react physically.

Sharks are marine animals that do not communicate how we do, therefore, their communications are very subtle and not noise related.

However, just because we’re unable to effectively measure the amount of pain a shark is in, it does not mean that they are not experiencing it.

Sharks likely experience pain in a similar way to how insects do, in that they will very much continue on with their lives and show no protective behavior towards the injured body part.

Insects do not limp if they injure their legs, for example, they show no signs that they are injured at all.

Locusts have been observed continuing to feed even whilst being eaten by mantises, and male mantids that are mating will continue to do so even when being eaten by their partners.

How sharks perceive pain is undoubtedly different from how many other animals and we humans do, but it’s completely unjust to rule out the fact that these animals feel pain at all.

How Do We Know Sharks Feel Pain?

So, how can we be one hundred percent certain that sharks feel pain? Well, we can’t.

Trying to understand for certain if a shark feels pain is like trying to understand if a piece of string knows how long it is. It’s impossible.

What we do know is that sharks can detect certain damaging stimuli, such as intense heat and pressure.

They will actively stay away from it, which based on this alone means that we should not rule out the theory of sharks not feeling pain.

The truth is that we don’t yet have any concrete research or evidence for how sharks feel pain and more work needs to be carried out in this area.

There is evidence that supports both sharks not feeling pain, as well as sharks being able to detect damaging stimuli, so it’s still a big unknown.

Sharks Do ‘Feel’ Pain

Pain is a subjective experience and differs greatly depending on who you ask, what’s painful for me might be nothing more than a nip for you.

This is important to understand when discussing the topic of sharks feeling pain. If it can differ from person to person there’s a strong chance it differs between animals.

What is reasonable to assume is that sharks DO feel pain, but it is vastly different from how other animals and we humans experience it.

hooked shark
Image: VA Institute of Marine Science via Flickr

Sharks are highly complex animals that are capable of emotions such as sadness, and they are even capable of holding memories and adapting their behaviors to new circumstances.

This indicates that once sharks have experienced pain, they change their behaviors to actively avoid it in the future so that they do not suffer again.

Final Thoughts

Sharks have a very different nervous system from land mammals and even other fish, but this doesn’t mean we can rule out sharks feeling pain.

This subject is still very much a grey area and more work needs to be carried out to come up with some definitive answers.

My stance on the matter is that as we’re currently unable to prove that sharks do NOT feel pain, we shouldn’t make the assumption.

There’s evidence that proves sharks can detect damaging stimuli and will avoid them, which until we have definitive answers is good enough for me.

I know this article is a tricky one to wrap your head around, but until there is clear evidence that suggests otherwise I think it’s wise to give these animals the benefit of the doubt.

Thanks for taking the time to learn more about sharks and I hope you’ve taken something useful away from this article.

See you in the next one.