Do Sharks Make Noise?

Do Sharks Make Noise?

Sharks, on the whole, are silent predators. Gliding effortlessly through the water, it’s in their interests as ambush predators to keep quiet. These specialized hunters even have scales perfected to minimize the disturbance of the water they pass through.

Sharks are also mostly solitary, meaning that they tend to live and hunt alone, not taking too much time to socialize, and perhaps, therefore, not needing to speak.

Some fish have swim bladders, which, without vocal cords, might be the best they can do in terms of an organ that produces sound, but this is not an organ that sharks possess.

So, it fits their image that nobody has ever heard one talk or even found an organ capable of producing vocalizations.

But as you may know by now, sharks hold onto their secrets very tightly, and biologists are only beginning to get a glimpse of what these ancient creatures are capable of. Though they’re not as vocal as whales and dolphins, some people think they may have discovered a handful of cases where sharks make noise.

So, do sharks make noise?

In general, no. Sharks aren’t capable of producing vocalizations. However, there are unconfirmed reports of a few shark species either barking like a dog or letting out a mysterious, deep growl. These are the swell shark, the draughtsboard shark, and the whale shark.

However, these sounds might not be vocalizations, and they may not even be coming from the shark itself. There’s a lot of research left to do before we can conclude one way or another.

To think clearly about why sharks don’t make many sounds, it’s worth investigating the purpose of making a sound and how sounds are commonly produced in animals.

How do Animals Make Noise?

On land, animals use a variety of means to alert others of their presence.

Mammals typically use their vocal cords or sometimes bang their meaty appendages together (clapping).

Amphibians push air into stretchy skin under their mouths to produce a plethora of different reverberating chirps, grunts, clicks, and whistles.

Insects rub knees, wings, and thorax segments against one another to call out loudly.

In the ocean, sound carries really well, but some of the methods used to produce it on land aren’t feasible.

Water is much denser than air, and lunged animals can’t breathe it anyway, so shouting in the traditional, terrestrial sense, is out.

  • Sperm whales make extremely loud noises by compressing air through their respiratory system and releasing it with a click. These animals have a very complex vocal language that we are still nowhere close to understanding.
  • Snapping shrimp quickly close their claws to produce a loud snap. It’s a defensive mechanism that stuns predators, as well as a way to immobilize prey.
  • Some fish have what’s called a sonic muscle that attaches to their swim bladder. This allows the fish to ‘drum’ on the air-filled sack to make intentional noises. Other fish can rub together parts of their skeleton or make snapping noises against the water by quickly changing direction to produce sound.
  • Sharks don’t have swim bladders, air-filled respiratory systems, snappable joints, or even bony skeletons, so their options are limited. As of yet, no organ or method has been described for shark vocalizations at all.

Do Sharks Roar?

In the animal kingdom, a roar is a powerful statement.

Roaring can communicate to other animals intimidation, location, or intention to mate.

It can also help create bonds between social animals as a shared expression. In Hollywood, lions and tigers roar when they attack, but in reality, this would just give their position away – roars are not typically used as a hunting strategy.

Roaring involves forcing air through specialized vocal folds, making a loud and bassy sound that travels well without straining the lungs.

Sharks, of course, don’t have this physiology, and even if they did, the water they live in wouldn’t quite carry the same effect, so roaring in the traditional sense is out of the question.

Neither do sharks have a social dynamic that requires a roar. They don’t mark out their territory or engage in family bonding behaviors. They don’t have many predators to intimidate, and they don’t use sound to indicate receptiveness to mate.

So, sharks don’t need to roar, nor do they have the physical capacity for it. But we mentioned that sharks occasionally make some sounds, so let’s look into that a little closer.

What Noise do Sharks Make?

As of now, only two genera of sharks have been recorded to make a sound, and one of those still isn’t 100% confirmed.

Whale Shark

When filming for the TV series Blue Planet II in 2016, a TV crew picked up a mysterious sound from a camera attached to the back of a whale shark.

A ’low, gravelly whisper’ sparked curiosity from researchers and students, who were able to collect a handful of samples of similar sounds while swimming with these sharks.

Short, harsh rattling noises and sounds resembling the clicks and knocks made by sperm whales have been reported while in the proximity of whale sharks since, but until now, there is still no confirmed source, and funding for research into this is hard to find.

Whale sharks swim with a lot of company.

Remora fish follow in droves, as well as multiple other parasitic or commensal (helpful) fish that are taking up a shelter around the magnificent bulk of the world’s largest fish.

The sounds recorded by divers could potentially come from numerous other animals nearby – and any fish with a swim bladder has the potential to be able to make a sound – but many people think that the timings of these sounds strongly suggest that they are coming from the whale sharks themselves.

If this is the case, it would be a very unusual and mysterious discovery, and confirmation could pave the way for new research in this area. Unfortunately, the scientific consensus is hard to break, and so far, there isn’t much interest in the topic while the evidence is currently so slim.

So as the largest shark in the ocean slips down the rankings from vulnerable to endangered, it runs the risk of disappearing before we ever find out what it was trying to tell us.

Swell Shark

Swell sharks (Cephaloscyllium ventriosum) have a peculiar defense mechanism. Much like the well-known pufferfish, these sharks can inflate their bodies with water – or air – as a way of making themselves impossible to swallow.

This defense comes at a price for the pufferfish; however, as the alkaline seawater entering their stomach neutralizes the powerful acids inside it and will harm digestion for the animal until it has time to recover. Interestingly, no such hindrance has been noticed in swell sharks.

These small sharks have been reported to bark like a dog when caught, which is thought to be the sound of the expulsion of air, taken in by mistake as the shark is pulled out of the water.

It’s unlikely that this sound occurs under normal conditions or is an evolutionary defense mechanism in itself. Rather, it’s a by-product of the shark’s very stressful and unpleasant experience.

Draughtsboard shark

This cute little spotted shark, Cephaloscyllium isabellum, is another type of catshark.

It’s ironic, then, that it’s been recorded barking like a dog. There’s not much information on this, and it’s important to hold these claims with a heavy dose of skepticism, but it is feasible that a shark expelling water or air as a defense mechanism will also make a sound as it does so.

These sharks are endemic to New Zealand, and there are a lot of unconfirmed reports of them being able to take water or air into their body as a defense mechanism, much like the swell shark mentioned above. The expulsion of this may be responsible for the reported barking when caught on a line and pulled out of the water.

It’s probable, however, that this shark, being the same genus as the swell shark, has been the recipient of a case of mistaken identity.

Many sources confuse the common name Draughtsboard shark with the taxonomic name for the swell shark! Having said this, many species of the genus Cephaloscyllium are capable of this defense mechanism, so the reports may be accurate.

Notes on Scientific Names

It can be a little overwhelming to read too many scientific names for animals, but there is a point where it becomes very important.

People have common names for many different animals, and sometimes these overlap.

In the case of Cephaloscyllium Isabellum, the names carpet shark, draughtsboard shark, swell shark, and others are all used by different people. Some of these names are used for other types of sharks too. This can lead to some confusion and misreporting of facts when a behavior is attributed to the wrong shark.

With scientific names, there is (usually) only one. And it’s the same in every language. This makes science communication a lot more accurate and reliable because everyone’s for sure talking about the same animal. Hence, where possible, it’s a good idea to throw in the scientific name for good measure!

Conclusion

Sharks have neither the physiology nor, seemingly, the impetus to make any noise.

At least, not any that we can pick up on. There are some incidences where a swell shark, pulled from the water and desperate to defend itself, will puff up on air instead of water and sort of ‘burp’ it out, but this is when taken from their natural habitat and wouldn’t be a natural sound.

However, in the case of a whale shark, there is some mystery remaining. So far, no study has been funded to explore this, and the idea that they make a sound goes against everything we understand about them.

But with sharks, everything we understand is always very limited, and the more we look, the more we discover their secrets. So, this idea that sharks don’t make any sound may be about to change.