Zombies of the ocean: the mechanism behind shark tonic immobility

Shark in tonic immobility state.

Shark in tonic immobility state.

My true passion in science is ecology and evolution of host-parasite systems. However,vertebrate evolution was what really caught my attention when I first started to study biology. Just based on the number of fans the movie Jurassic Park has, I’m sure I’m not alone with my fascination by vertebrate biology and evolution. Luckily, I got the chance to TA the Vertebrate Biology Lab at UMSL, which is an anatomy lab that I try to teach in an evolutionary, ecological and behavioral context. This Fall, I’ve decided to spice things up, and proposed to the students what I called the “Ultimate Vert Bio Challenge”. The idea here is to get our brains around some of the coolest, but, complex and most times under studied, facts involving vertebrates. In this first challenge, students had to try to explain the mechanism involved on shark tonic immobility (TI), a very popular topic referred to as ‘shark hypnosis’ or ‘zombie sharks’ in the media, and recently featured on Discovery Channel’s shark week (see video bellow).

Tonic immobility is assumed to be a behavioral strategy of preys – but, what does it mean when a predator presents the same type of behavior? Figure from the book Epossumondas Plays Possum, by Salley and Stevens.

Tonic immobility is assumed to be a behavioral strategy of preys – but, what does it mean when a predator presents the same type of behavior? Figure from the book Epossumondas Plays Possum, by Salley and Stevens.

TI is a behavioral strategy found in several species of vertebrates, such as  rabbits, chickens, hummingbirds, opossums, lizards, humans, and even in invertebrates, such as the red-flour beetle. In terrestrial vertebrates, TI is characterized as an unlearned and reversible behavior, in which the animal involuntarily enters a dead-like state characterized by motor inhibition. It is a behavioral display commonly associated with stress and fear responses to predators – hence a very widespread strategy among prey species. If TI is a response to predation, why the heck sharks, one of the sea’s top predators, can also be induced into a TI state? The TI mechanism is somewhat understood in terrestrial vertebrates: it involves activity of the hypothalamic-adrenal-axis, production of corticosteroids and muscle contraction. In contrast, in sharks and other elasmobranchs, TI is characterized by muscle relaxation. It is known that sharks experience physiological stress when in TI, due to high levels of carbon dioxide in the blood caused by inefficient ventilation while immobilized and turned upside down. However, the precise mechanism of TI in sharks has yet to be determined.

To get some insights on the possible mechanistic pathway of this phenomena, I got in touch with Dr Stephen Kajiura, the PI of the Elasmobranch Research Laboratory, at the Florida Atlantic University. Dr Kajiura mentioned that the consensus is that we just don’t know what the precise mechanism is. When I asked him to speculate what he believes the mechanism could be, he stated: “Since it (TI) works when the animal is flipped upside down, I would suspect that the mode of action is initiated by the vestibular system.  Another option is that the position causes blood flow to the brain to be compromised causing the animal to pass out.  In the wild, these animals are only likely to be flipped upside-down when being mated and it would probably be adaptive to be somewhat passive during that procedure to avoid being damaged by the mate’s teeth.” Another fact frequently pictured in shark TI videos are divers rubbing the animal’s snout with metal gloves, to stimulate the shark’s Ampullae of Lorenzini (AOL), an electro-receptive sensory system. This often misleads us to believe that AOL disruption is somehow the mechanism behind TI. Dr Kajiura explains that “it is possible to flip the sharks in the absence of any metal glove and get the same result.  AOL detect changes in electric fields so the shark may be momentarily confused by the metal glove, which might help to get it flipped upside-down, but remaining in TI is accomplished without any metal.  Again, we flip sharks with just our bare hands and get the same result so AOL are not likely the mechanism“. What is your hypothesis about the mechanism responsible for turning sharks into zombies?

Thanks to Dr Stephen Kajiura for kindly answering my questions so promptly!!

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