Even if you’ve never seen the ‘70s Hollywood blockbuster, “Jaws,” you’re probably familiar with the startling image of a great white plunging from the water, mouth agape and lined with razor-sharp teeth. Suddenly, sharks were immortalized as the ocean’s greatest danger.
This misperception of sharks as voracious predators is one that perforated the media and has stuck with the public ever since. Let’s face it: Sharks are battling a bad rap, and it largely boils down to a lack of information. In fact, the likelihood of being killed by a shark is one in 3.7 million.
Sharks are thoughtful and engaged hunters, and some of them can be very picky eaters. A quick look at a shark’s teeth can hint at what they’re most likely to eat. Some sharks have long, pointed teeth perfect for catching a slippery fish. Others have serrated teeth intended for tearing through tougher prey. Sharks that are known to feed on crustaceans and other small, shelled animals have flatter teeth designed for crushing.
Many sharks will also go after old, injured or unhealthy animals that make for easier targets. In the process, they’re helping to regulate the ecosystem— eliminating competition, eradicating disease and maintaining balance in the food chain.
The bottom line is that most sharks maintain a pretty strict diet, and humans aren’t on the menu. In the instance that a shark does accidentally bite a human, curiosity is usually to blame. As humans, we explore our environment with our hands. Sharks are inquisitive animals, too, but they use their mouths and teeth to decipher their surroundings.
You may be surprised to learn that humans actually pose a much greater threat to sharks than sharks do to us.
In the United States, there is only about one shark-related fatality every two years. Last year, according to the International Shark Attack File, there were just 10 shark-related fatalities worldwide. Compare that to the estimated more than 100 million sharks killed annually, many the product of shark culling, shark finning and unintentional bycatch.
Because of their slow reproductive rates, sharks are extremely vulnerable to overfishing. They are slow to mature, and with fishing practices like these left unfettered, they face increasing population pressures. Between 1986 and 2000, scientists noted that the population of great white sharks alone in the Northwest Atlantic Ocean had declined by more than 75 percent.
A Closer Look
There are more than 400 species of sharks, and they don’t all resemble a great white. Sharks range in size and shape, color, temperament, range and diet, among other attributes.
And shark diversity in the wild is astounding. The dwarf lanternshark is the smallest known species of shark, reaching just eight inches when full grown, but it’s not alone. In fact, more than 50 percent of sharks are less than 3 feet long!
There are a few behemoths out in the ocean, too, but size doesn’t always indicate aggression. The whale shark is believed to be the largest, reaching lengths of more than 60 feet (bigger than a school bus!).
Whale sharks are filter feeders whose diet consists mostly of microscopic plankton and phytoplankton, as well as the occasional crustacean or small fish. When feeding, these sharks open their mouths and suck in water like a vacuum. The excess water is expelled through the gills, leaving just the food behind.
Each and every species of shark plays a unique and important role in keeping our ocean healthy.
The Great Unknown
Sharks have been around for a long time—so long, in fact, that they predate the dinosaurs by 200 million years. But there’s still a lot left to learn. The more we know about sharks, the greater drive there will be to protect them.
When we turn away from fear and embrace curiosity, we become advocates for sharks and other species that make our ocean a lively place worthy of exploration!