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Can sharks smile?

Front view of apparently smiling shark, with 2 divers close to it.
Can sharks smile? This lemon shark made the rounds on Twitter in 2016, after being caught on film by Kenneth “Wayne” MacWilliams in Juniper, Florida. One caption read: “JAW-SOME! Shark cracks a smile and looks hilariously like Bruce from Finding Nemo.” Attributing emotions to animals is irresistible. But it might say more about us than them. Image via @Caters_News on Twitter.

Shark Week on the Discovery channel starts on July 24, 2022. Click in for info

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.

Grinning cartoon shark from movie Finding Nemo with 2 small fish in front.
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.”

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.

Shark, white below and gray above, with smile-shaped mouth filled with sharp teeth.
How about this shark? Smiling? Photo via Sharkpix.com.

What will we learn?

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, they say.

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.

Face of brown and white dog with bright eyes and smiling open mouth.
Now that’s a smile! Photo via Rennett Stowe/ Flickr.

Bottom line: Can sharks smile? Not likely. But dogs, monkeys and dolphins all show expressions akin to human smiles.

Shark Week on the Discovery channel starts on July 24, 2022. Click in for info

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