Sharks: Ocean spies of the future?

Story and Photos by Cory Hatch

Researcher Jelle Atema uses shark sensory organs to control the animals' movements.

Deep in the basement of the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, Jelle Atema dips his hand into the shark tank with operatic flair. The tiny dorsal fin of a 3-foot dogfish shark breaks the surface and the researcher deftly untangles long, yellow and blue electrical wires attached to the animal’s skull. The wires connect thin silver electrodes implanted deep in the shark’s brain to a remote control device outside the tank. When Atema passes an electrical current through the wire, it stimulates the shark’s sense of smell and the animal turns, just as a wild shark would move toward blood in the ocean.

Scientists have known for years that sharks can’t resist the smell of prey. Atema seeks to capitalize on this primal urge, directing the movement of sharks by mimicking smells electronically. Eventually, a remote control device would beam commands to a receiver on the shark’s back, enabling a handler to steer the shark like a toy submarine. The sharks could comb hostile waters in advance of US troops with sensors that detect TNT or cameras that snap intelligence photographs. Outside the military, similar sensors could sniff out oil spills or gather data on the behavior of sharks in their natural habitat.

Atema, a professor with the Boston University Marine Program, first started studying sensory organs in marine animals in graduate school nearly 40 years ago. Along with his mentor Adrianus Kalmijn, now at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Atema helped provide the first evidence that sharks used their lateral lines to detect electrical fields while hunting prey buried beneath the sand. A dogfish shark, for example, can detect a fluctuation of five billionths of a volt using organs called ampullae of Lorenzini. Atema says Kalmijn’s research spawned controversy: some researchers refused to accept the existence of senses outside the realm of human experience. “At the time he (Kalmijn) had to go to great lengths to make the unbelievable believable,” says Atema. “But the great contribution of real science is to make people think differently. They see things that they didn’t see before.”

Atema’s current shark project is a homologue of the well-publicized dolphin projects that the Navy has worked on for years. Similar to the way Sea World trainers send dolphins flipping through hoops, Navy dolphin handlers use auditory commands or hand gestures to direct the dolphins into mine infested waters on reconnaissance missions. But, dolphins are expensive to train and, sometimes, too intelligent to control. In 2003, a Navy dolphin named Tacoma went AWOL after his handlers sent him to search for mines in waters near Iraq. Atema’s sharks could prove a more reliable and less expensive alternative.

Atema’s fascination with wildlife began as a child in The Netherlands. His parents, both teachers, raised their four children to have an early appreciation for the natural world with camping trips and lessons on ecology. Atema wanted to pursue a career in art or music, but his mother pushed him towards a career in biology. “Eventually, I saw myself satisfying my mother by having a degree in biology, but going off in a music career,” he says. Atema soon focused on the flute, working under the tutelage of virtuoso Jean-Pierre Rampal, “the greatest flutist in the world at the time” who he studied with for three summers. But Atema eventually gave up on a professional music career. After completing his doctorate, at age 25 he accepted a post-doc position studying sensory biology at the University of Michigan. Even so, he maintained contact with Rampal, playing a last concert with his mentor two years before the musician’s death in 2000. “You learn more from these people than just music,” says Atema. “It’s the way you live your life.”

Atema’s endless hours practicing the flute helped him develop his perfectionist attitude toward science, and perhaps the hint of showmanship he uses to educate people about his research. In his basement lab at Woods Hole, Atema describes electrical signals and brain structures with the aplomb of a seasoned stage performer: his slightly accented punctuated with occasional dramatic pause.

“He’s really great at creating… an atmosphere where personal and scientific ideas blossom,” says Atema’s former student Charles Derby, now a professor of biology at Georgia State University in Atlanta. “He’s a pretty incredible guy in the breadth of interest that he has, and how he’s weaved those [interests] together in all sorts of interesting ways. If the term ‘renaissance man’ might be applied to anybody these days, he’s a strong candidate.”

Atema’s bravura seeps into the graduate students who work in his lab. Take, for instance, Jayne Gardiner, who with no warning or hesitation, grabs a four-foot dogfish shark with both hands, wrests the writhing animal from a huge flow tank, carries the muscular eating machine across the room, and dumps it into an aquarium. A semi-circular abrasion on her arm shows where the teeth of one shark tried to sink home. Most of the animals aren’t big enough to cause serious damage to an arm, she explains, but the animals could easily sever an errant finger.

This seemingly antagonistic shark-human relationship could explain why so few critics question Atema’s shark experiments. While the research has prompted protests from bloggers who allude to remote controlled humans or horror films featuring maniacal cyborg sharks on a feeding frenzy, it hasn’t drawn much fire from animal rights activists. Atema explains that the public’s empathy for sharks ranks rather low when compared with chimps or dolphins. And, unlike chemical weapons and nuclear bombs, this collaboration between science and the military would, ostensibly, help protect US troops not kill enemy soldiers. “There is much more to be gained than lost with this approach,” he explains. “If there were a Manhattan Project, I would not participate.”

However, before the military sends these cartilaginous recruits into hostile waters, Atema must map the complex brain systems that motivate the animals. His experiments started by recording EEG signals from the sharks’ olfactory bulbs, parts of the brain that process odors, while sharks homed in on chum. He then turned those recordings into an electrical signal that he sends to a general region of the olfactory bulbs. The electrical signal stimulates the shark’s sense of smell, and the shark swims toward the imaginary odor. Atema can’t be sure exactly which neurons he’s stimulating, and therefore, he can’t always control the sharks’ direction reliably. Although his preliminary research shows promising results, Atema says the sharks only respond after some training. Some sharks don’t respond at all. The goal, he said, is to go out into the field, capture the shark, implant the device, and have it behave properly without any training whatsoever.

For the next stage of his research, Atema has developed miniature EEGs that he will attach to the sharks to record, in greater detail, how the olfactory bulbs function. He hopes to pinpoint exactly which circuits are firing when a shark detects an odor. “How complex a stimulation pattern do you need to make the animal believe it was natural?” he asks. Once he maps these circuits, Atema will target those cells with more precise electrodes to, in theory, get more reliable responses from the sharks. “It needs to be done in great, great detail,” he says. The engineering is hardcore. It’s not physics; the animal ultimately decides whether or not it will work. In my experiment, I am attempting management of chaos."

Check out the spy shark photo gallery