great white shark

Sharks: Not Vicious, Just Mouthy and Inquisitive

In lieu of all of the sensationalist shark media occurring out there this summer, let’s talk about shark behavior and, in specific, shark attacks and white shark.

Some basic white shark facts (and yes, Carcharodon carcharias is often also officially called the great white, but that just exacerbates all the media attention, so white shark it is). Whites are huge pelagic (open water) sharks that get on average 4-5 meters long, and their only known predator as an adult are orcas. They’re one of the longest lived cartilaginous fish known with a lifespan that appears to extend into their 70′s. They have hella tons of teeth and lots of rows of them, so that when one pops out the next just pops into place as if on a conveyor belt. A white shark’s bite force is something like 4000 pounds per square inch from a six-foot-long animal. (Thanks to wiki for all the basic facts). 

Have a white shark anatomical drawing from wiki, because while it’s nightmare-inducing, it’s the only thing about sharks that should be. 

People love to talk about sharks as these horrible monsters of the deep, eating everything they come across with gruesome abandon. This is just ‘perfect’ for summer, when sharks start showing up on beaches in the US and scaring the bejeezus out of basically everyone. 

Luckily, those people are making things up. You’re more likely to die because you shook a vending machine and it fell on top of you than you are to get bitten (note: not attacked) by a white shark. There’s a couple things you’re got to know about how sharks function to understand why worrying about getting nommed on by one at the beach is pretty silly. 

To start, they’re not man-eaters. Sharks don’t even know what a human is. We’re not aquatic organisms and they’ve probably only rarely encountered humans before, so there’s no reason to assume they’re going to be like ‘omg tasty hooman’ and charge over for a snack We don’t fit into what sharks consider prey, so they’re not going to prey on us intentionally. 

However, they do prey on seals. Tasty, blubbery, freaking-stupidly-clever-and-fast seals. And a human on a surfboard (which is when almost all shark encounters happen that result in injury) happens to look mightily like a seal if all you can see is a silhouette. More importantly, it’s a slow, stationary seal, which implies an easy meal. Most of the time, sharks ‘attack’ surfers thinking they’re seals. And guess what? Humans do not have all that tasty, energy-loaded blubber that seals do. We’re pretty bony and we’re on these weird plastic things that have got to taste nasty as hell. Most shark ‘attacks’ last for one bite, because the shark pretty quickly realizes that we’re not the pinniped it thought we were, and those bones aren’t worth the effort, and it leaves. Not great for the surfer who is now missing lots of bits, but hey, the shark isn’t purposefully being an asshole. It was a case of mistaken identity!

But there are lots of encounters where people don’t get hurt, right? They just get the shit scared out of them when a shark starts face-punching their arm, and panic, and call the media, and suddenly it’s an attack again. This is actually because most of a shark’s sensory organs are on it’s face. 

All those red dots are organs called the ampullae of lorenzini, and they sense electrical stimulus. They’re the organs that all cartilaginous fish use to locate food - when you see a ray sweeping it’s rostrum across the sand, it’s using it’s ampullae to search for buried critters. So if a shark is curious about something, say, a human, the first response is to nose it to get more information. That’s not aggression, it’s curiosity. Then, unfortunately, if it still wants more information, it’ll go and take a nibble - because, if you look above, there are more dots right around the mouth than anywhere else. Sharks are basically the really sharp aquatic equivalent of that annoying baby who has to put everything in it’s mouth. 

Because humanity is collectively terrified of anything that has more naturally provided pointy bits than we do, everything has to demonize sharks, and that ends really badly. Everything gets interpreted as aggression. This, for instance, is a video in which a shark attempts to figure out what a pontoon boat is and gets stuck in the float. The people watching it of course put JAWS music on and captioned it as an attack, but that’s just a stressed shark going ‘wtf is this weird thing and why won’t it give me my teeth back’. 

It’s shark season, but that doesn’t mean they’re out to eat us. We’re a bony, problematic food that likes to play mean tricks by pretending to be seals. If you don’t want to get attacked by a shark? Be careful about being in the water, and don’t surf at sunset or sunrise. If you see a shark being inquisitive, just bop it. They’re not used to any sort of physical contact from something that isn’t either food, a predator, or a mate, so they’ll generally just leave immediately.

Tl;dr, sharks are mouthy babies who aren’t good at differentiating humans from seals, and we certainly don’t help them any.

Shark week is coming to an end, and to cap off this wonderful week, we’re giving you enough shark facts to last you the whole year!

  • Sharks have roamed the oceans since well before the days of the dinosaurs and remain among the world’s most effective hunters.
  • Sharks originated some 450 million years ago, and many species have changed little in the past 100 million years. 
  • Unlike most fishes, they have no gas bladder to keep them afloat, so many species must move constantly to keep from sinking. 
  • Their skeletons are made of light, tough cartilage instead of bone, and many have large, oil-filled livers that make them more buoyant.
  • Sharks’ mouths bristle with rows of teeth which are constantly replaced by new ones as they become broken or worn. 
  • The first vertebrates to develop an immune system, sharks may have greater immunity to cancer than humans, and they are being studied for potential new cancer medications and antibiotics.
  • Most sharks are no more dangerous than other fishes. Humans, however, have proved extremely dangerous to sharks. 
  • Of the roughly 340 species of sharks, most never attack people. Fewer than 100 people per year are bitten by sharks, and less than 15 percent of these attacks are fatal. 
  • Humans kill 50 to 100 million sharks each year, placing entire populations and some species at serious risk.
  • As top ocean predators, sharks maintain the balance of other populations.
  • Growing consumption of shark meat and fins, and the popularity of shark fishing for sport, have caused some shark species to decline by more than 90 percent, threatening the sharks’ survival and disrupting ocean ecosystems.
  • Some sharks lay eggs, but most bear live young, as mammals do. Some species remain pregnant for over two years – longer than any other vertebrate. 
  • Sharks typically bear just three to 12 pups, and many do not reproduce until age 30, making it hard for them to recover when millions are killed by humans.

Learn much more about sharks and other marine life in the Museum’s Milstein Hall of Ocean Life.