IAN KIRKWOOD: Brains lurk behind teeth

I WAS stuck at the desk, unfortunately. But the rest of the family went to the Australian Shark and Ray Centre at Bobs  Farm earlier this week, and after looking at the footage they brought back, I am stunned.

The rays, the sharks, the wobbegongs, all of them swimming lazily around my children, nuzzling up to their legs and their fingers, flicking their noses up out of the water for food.

I’m pretty down on zoos in general. Even though the modern Taronga Park Zoo is a massive improvement on the old concrete pens the animals used to bake in, I still feel the urge to run through the place with wire-cutters and set them all free.

But the sharks and rays at Bobs Farm – some of them bred on the property, some donated by fishermen – seemed genuinely at home in the clear, cool water of the various pools.

But it’s not the place itself, as original as it is, that has set me thinking.

It’s the way the sharks and rays appear to me to be displaying – and there’s no other word for it – an intelligence that we would normally associate with dogs, for example.

One of the pools had a deeper centre section where a couple of big rays liked to hang, sharing the area with a motley collection of fish. The bream would zip out of their deepwater safety to grab a bit of food tossed into the water, but they made no attempt to interact and were back in the deep as soon as they’d closed their mouths.

But the rays and sharks seemed to genuinely like the contact and the attention. And if you’ve ever looked at the ‘‘facial’’ – for want of a better word – features of a stingray, you’ll see they are uncannily human.

The flat bottom side of a shovelnose shark is a good example. If you stood on one on its tails you’d see a mouth with a weird set of gummy lips that would do Mick Jagger proud. Above the mouth are two round holes that look for all the world like eyes. But as a Bobs Farm ray expert, Ryan Periera, told me when I called him to ask, they are ‘‘spiracles’’ – vents that capture food by sucking in large volumes of seawater. The eyes are over on the top side of its body, so it can look up from the bottom of the sea.

It looks an awful lot like a human face to me.

It’s called ‘‘anthropomorphology’’  – the identification of supposedly human characteristics in animals.

Mainstream science says we are wrong to see these features, and we probably are.

But what about this? The ocean is a deadly, deadly place. Everything from the blue whale down lives in a state of constant agitation, fearing for its life lest it becomes the next gulp in the food chain.

In this world, our potentially friendly, communicative rays and sharks have their guards up way too high to show their ‘‘human’’ side, their intelligence.

But here, confident that no one is going to harass them – and I am really proud of getting this far through the story without telling a Steve Irwin joke – they show what they are capable of. They interact with us, one friendly species to another, displaying behaviours – dare I call them moods – that are understandable in human terms.

Mr Pereira says he has no doubts sharks and rays communicate with each other, and they are easily trained in much the same fashion as seals.

Checking the scientific literature, I found that stingrays have rodent-sized brains and that like mammals, they have a ‘‘complex, three-lobed cerebellum’’.

I do wonder if we miss a lot of signals from the animal world because we don’t know how to read them.

  Clouds are aimless bits of fluff above our heads until we look down on Earth from a satellite and speed up the film to reveal rolling waves of cloud like giant breakers in the sky.

Stars in the night sky are just random pin pricks of light until radio telescopes give us glorious pictures of galactic symphony.

And so, from the back of a trawler, the white spotted shark, Mustelus antarcticus, is just a cheap catch ready to fillet as ‘‘flake’’.

But at Bobs Farm, he and his cousins might just be a sign that lots of animals have far more intelligence than we give them credit for.

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