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Can sharks predict hurricanes? Here's what scientists say

How certain sharks behave before a major storm can give us insight into when it's heading our way.
Credit: Chris Ross/Ocearch
Great white shark caught off the coast of North Carolina, tagged for research purposes then released back into the ocean.

TAMPA, Florida — Typically, we turn to hurricane scientists and their advanced technologies to know when a storm is coming our way — but, according to researchers, some of our oceans' fiercest predators are getting into the meteorology game, too.

Sharks can't exactly forecast hurricanes days ahead of time like humans can, but scientists say they can sense when a storm is coming with enough time to swim to safer waters.

Several studies, including some from Florida International University, show that different species of sharks detect changes in barometric pressure and swim out to deeper waters to avoid getting caught up in storm surges.

“They have this, this pressure sensor on their body which enables them to detect changes in even atmospheric pressure, barometric pressure on the surface of the water,” FIU biological sciences professor Stephen Kajiura told CBS Austin. "They're able to respond fairly quickly. They, they know something is coming. And so they're gonna get out of get out of the shallows, you know, in a matter of hours."


This reaction, however, varies from species to species.

Scientists from the University of Miami analyzed data from different species of tagged sharks before, during, and after Hurricane Matthew in 2016 and Hurricane Irma in 2017. 

They found that smaller bull sharks, hammerheads and nurse sharks evacuated the shallow waters of Biscayne Bay ahead of Irma while the bigger tiger sharks stayed in the shallows.

"I was amazed to see that big tiger sharks didn’t evacuate even as the eye of the hurricane was bearing down on them, it was as if they didn’t even flinch,” Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, one of the researchers on the study, said.

Scientists think the tiger sharks' behavior may have to do with the feeding frenzy that follows a storm in the shallow waters as a result of sea life that doesn't survive.

Researchers are using this data along with traditional tools like underwater drones and buoys to learn more about hurricanes. But more work needs to be done before we can rely on sharks to predict when the storms are coming.

"Sharks show up whenever they feel like it. We have no control over that. So it's not a reliable mechanism to collect data, but it is something that is interesting to think about," Kajiura said via CBS Austin. "We are able to take a look at the movements of the sharks as a response as they respond to things like changing weather, but we don't have the ability to query the sharks and say, 'Come let us know what you're doing now.'"

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