New camera gives us shark-like vision underwater

26 Apr 2016

Researchers delving into the world of sharks and how they view things in the murky depths of the world’s oceans has led to the creation of a camera that gives us shark-like vision.

How does a shark in the deepest parts of the world’s oceans navigate in areas where little-to-no light from the sun can penetrate?

For marine researchers studying sharks and many of the other creatures that exist at this level, it had become apparent that bioluminescence – the ability of a creature to glow in the dark – was helpful to them, but the mystery remained as to why.

How it works

Now, in a study published in Scientific Reports, a team of researchers says it has developed a camera that allows it to see the world through the eyes of a shark and past the murkiness of the deep blue to see bioluminescence like never before.

The team from the American Museum of Natural History developed the camera by analysing the retinas of sharks to determine how they view bioluminescence using eyes that are 100-times better in low-light conditions than our own.

From their research, the saw that sharks’ eyes contain long rods used to help them see in the dark, combined with one cone that helps them determine different pigmentations, specifically blue-green ones, which are obviously abundant in oceans.

Glowing shark

Biofluorescent chain catshark. Image via J. Sparks, D. Gruber, and V. Pieribone

‘Imagine being at a disco party’

The team began testing the camera off the coast of the US to look at catsharks, and found that at depths of more than 38m, the sharks’ bioluminescence kicks into action, revealing incredible and distinct patterns all across their skin, which differs based on the shark’s sex and, of course, the species.

When attempting to view the sharks without the help of the special shark camera, however, the sharks were totally obscured by the murkiness of the ocean.

It’s believed that more than 180 species of marine creatures are bioluminescent, but this camera has now made a considerable breakthrough, which appears to show that different species use bioluminescence like a secret signal between their own kind in a way that would hide them from predators, but help attract a potential mate.

Speaking to National Geographic, the study’s lead author, David Gruber, had a rather brilliant analogy for what this bioluminescence means for the marine world.

“Imagine being at a disco party with only blue lighting, so everything looks blue. Some things will look lighter blue and others will look darker blue,” he said.

“Suddenly, someone jumps onto the dance floor with an outfit covered in patterned fluorescent paint that converts blue light into green. They would stand out like a sore thumb. That’s what these sharks are doing.”

Before and after

Before and after

A swell shark in its natural environment in Scripps Canyon under white light (top), natural light (middle), and high-intensity blue light (bottom). Image via J. Sparks, D. Gruber, and V. Pieribone

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic