Remote-Controlled Sharks: Next Navy Spies?

March 6, 2006

For millions of beachgoers, the sight of a dorsal fin sticking out of the water means a shark with one thing on its mind: prey.

But what is really going on in the shark's head? If scientists knew, could they control some of the animals' thoughts and movements?

Jelle Atema, a marine biologist at Boston University in Massachusetts, hopes to find the answers.

He is one year into a four-year project to develop brain implants that could allow humans to remotely guide some shark behavior.

The study is funded by a U.S. $600,000 grant from the Arlington, Virginia-based Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA.

According to an article published last week in the British magazine New Scientist, the U.S. military hopes to use the technology to turn sharks "into stealth spies, perhaps capable of following vessels without being spotted."

On the Odor Trail

According to Atema, sharks have a large snout, sensitive nostrils, and a good portion of their brain dedicated to smell. They use their keen sense of smell to locate food and mates.

The brain implants consist of a series of electrodes that allow scientists to see which neurons fire in a shark's brain in response to a smell.

"We want to understand what kind of neurological info it's getting and is processing when it is swimming in a real odor trail," Atema said.

The research complements earlier work in which Atema showed how lobsters use smell to determine where they fit in their local community.

(Read "Lobsters Use Smell Test to ID Buddies, Bullies.")

Continued on Next Page >>




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