Sharks’ reputation a case of overkill

Leigh Dayton; 24/1/09

They’re billed as big, bold and dangerously bitey, but John West has been sticking up for sharks for more than 30 years. It all began when the marine biologist at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo noticed that media reports on the number of shark fatalities didn’t match his take on the matter. When he took a hard look, West realised not only were the stories exaggerated, it was sharks, not people, who were under threat. “(Media coverage) led to people killing the poor old grey nurse shark, which is harmless but looks fearsome, and nearly wiping them out along the east coast of Australia,” recalls West. So in 1984 he began a scientific counterattack on disinformation: the Australian Shark Attack File, a meticulous chronicle of who did what to whom, and when and where they did it.

See: The Australia, No Internet Texts;; www.taronga
The statistics prove West right. Sharks kill an inordinately small number of Australians, despite their fearsome reputation.
In the last 50 years, the “killers of the sea” have caused just 56 human fatalities in Australian waters, an average of 1.12 per year. Internationally, the number of deaths are in a similar proportion to the relevant population.
In contrast, scores of Australians drown in open water every year, says West, reeling off the numbers.
“In 1994 there were 419 drownings (of all causes) in Australia — of those, three were surfboard riders, 14 rock fisherman, 27 scuba divers and 79 who drowned at beaches, harbours and so forth,” he says.
“There were no shark fatalities that year. In 1995 the drowning statistics were similar, but there was one shark fatality.”
In other words, in two years roughly 250 people who engaged in marine activities died while doing so. In the same period, just one person, quite literally, met the jaws of death. But that means little to most Australians. In the minds of beachgoers the word “shark” causes dread.
How about the word “ant”? Nothing? Well, there should be. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures analysed by Melbourne University’s Australian Venom Research Unit (AVRU) reveal that venomous ants such as bullants and jumper ants kill more unwary people than do spiders such as the infamous funnel webs and redbacks.
According to the AVRU, bullants are among the largest ants in the world, they’re aggressive and they don’t hesitate to attack when disturbed. Jumper ants, or jack jumper ants, are also aggressive and are know to jump when attacking intruders.
Worse, ants — with a rough average of 2.4 human kills per year — make sharks look, well, unmotivated. Toss in bees and wasps, which like ants can also prove fatal because of the anaphylactic shock their stings can provoke, and eentsy insects easily out-kill sharks, at least when it comes to people.
Not surprisingly, West blames the public fascination with sensation and films like Jaws.
Evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks, director of the the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at the University of NSW, agrees, at least in part. Perception can become reality.
“Peter Benchley, who wrote Jaws, blames himself for the public attitude about sharks,” Brooks says. “I think he articulated what we think about sharks.”
But the inaccurate perception that Bench ley exploited to its terrifying maximum isn’t wired-in by a fear-of-sharks gene. There’s no such thing, says Brooks.
Instead, he says evolution has shaped our brains to fear danger. And that’s a good thing.
Fear has kept our species alive for hundreds of thousands of years. There’s undoubtedly a genetic predisposition to keep clear of “killyou-deads”.
But teasing out “nature” from “nurture” is complex when attempting to understand exactly why people consistently overestimate, for instance, the risk sharks pose, while underestimating the damage ants and their ilk can do.
Brooks begins with a general proposition about what triggers fear and the accompanying sense of pulse-racing alarm: “It’s the rare things we talk about around the camp fire. We know sharks are out there, but not many of us have experienced one.”
In other words, shark fatalities are rare but terrifying events that set tongues wagging and cameras rolling.
Brooks’s notion fits with what psychologists call “dread risks”. They’re occurrences, like terrorist attacks or plane crashes, which seldom happen yet have devastating consequences when they do.
Such events are dramatic, grab the headlines and produce vivid images that lodge in the brain.
The fact that auto accidents, for instance, kill more people each year doesn’t shift the fear of dread risks.
United Nations statistics cited last August in New Scientist magazine illustrate how dread risks consistently beat hard facts. Flying is widely regarded as very dangerous. It’s a dread risk.
In fact, in terms of the distance travelled, vastly more people die in motorcycle accidents than do flyers.
Surprisingly, travellers who walk, pedal, drive cars or vans, take a ferry, bus or train are also at greater risk than flyers. For every billion “passenger-kilometres”, nearly 97 motorcyclists die. Air travellers? Less than one — 0.1 persons to be precise.
In other words, humans regularly misjudge what should make them jump a mile and what shouldn’t. It’s an evolutionary glitch that comes with being an adaptable animal, working from general principles. In this case, avoid dangerous things; watch out for something unusual. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, a greatly reduced sense of fear.
Cars, and even car crashes, are so common, people take little notice. Moreover, drivers feel in control of the situation. It’s a familiar environment.
Control reduces fear and vice versa, says research and clinical psychologist Andrew Campbell, of the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Research Institute.
“When you’re in the water (where sharks rule) you have limited control of the environment. With ants or spiders, you can control them by slapping or squashing them.” The upshot is that sharks are scary and ants aren’t.
According to Campbell, his work with people suffering from phobias about creatures like sharks and snakes has revealed some characteristics that seem to trigger hard-wired fear responses in people.
“Size is fearful,” he says. “If animals are big and have scary features like sharks do, anybody who sees them has an immediate raise in heart rate and respiration.”
In addition to size and frightening features like jaws and fangs, Campbell adds loud noises, including hissing, roaring, growling, snorting, stamping and rattling.
“The majority of animals that can cause us harm have an (auditory) warning feature. For instance, (angry) elephants flap their ears loudly and trumpet,” says Campbell, who worked for several years in Africa.
“And if a lion roars, gee, that’s scary.”
Often, these animals are not warning us that we’re about to become dinner. They want us to go away.
“In most cases animals see us as the predator,” Campbell notes. In contrast, when they spot prey, animals are generally silent.
According to Campbell, certain movements also trigger innate startle and fear responses. The sideways motion snakes use to travel is unusual in the animal world and likely to cause instant fear. Similarly, the horizontal — as opposed to up-and-down — swimming style sharks use is alarming. In contrast, animals that swim porpoise-style, like whales, dolphins and, of course, porpoises are seen as friendly, and they generally are.
All up, it’s little wonder sharks have such a terrifying reputation. They’re big, have enormous jaws, swim horizontally in a human- unfriendly environment, can kill people with a single chomp and, when they do, produce a media, er, feeding frenzy.
It’s also obvious why West has taken on a tough public relations job. Until sharks go vegetarian — as did Will Smith’s character Oscar in the 2004 animated film Shark Tale — West will continue to swim against the tide of anti-shark sentiment. And the ants? They’ll get off scot-free.