Submerge yourself in the world of sharks and their relatives. Come face to face with these Atlantic predators.
Sharks and their relatives, the skates and rays, have long been shrouded in mystery. Over the last two centuries, they have often been cast as mindless predators. They are, however, largely misunderstood and completely fascinating. Walking through Shark Alley, guests will spot shadowy silhouettes as these ancient species cruise along silently. These fishes have been roaming the ocean for an estimated 450 million years—even predating trees in the fossil record. Thanks to improving technology, scientists are shedding light on these cartilaginous fishes, their adaptations and their crucial role in the ocean ecosystem.
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Sharks are often considered apex predators at the top of an ecosystem's food web, like Shark Alley's sandbar and sand tiger sharks, which have very few predators as adults. Many other shark species occupy the middle levels of food webs where they feed on smaller fishes and can fall prey to larger or older sharks themselves. Regardless of where in the food web they are, sharks and rays directly control a prey species' population by hunting.
Learn more about the residents of Shark Alley.
They have indirect impacts, too, as their presence in a habitat can keep other animals away. Depending on which species steer clear of a shark's territory, there can be far-reaching effects, like seagrass beds flourishing in the absence of grazing fish. It is vital that humans recognize the subtle ways these cartilaginous fishes affect their habitats, especially since an estimated third of shark and ray species are threatened due to overfishing.
Not to be confused with the similar-looking sawshark, largetooth sawfish are one of five species of ray with this characteristic chainsaw-like rostrum. Sawfishes are found in tropical and subtropical waters the world over, although all five species are either endangered or critically endangered. Most of the populations declined as international fishing fleets expanded in the 1960s, as more efficient fishing practices and stronger gear increased both catch sizes and the chances of sawfish becoming tangled in equipment. Four of the species can still be found in low numbers around northern Australia, while the smalltooth sawfish is the only species left in U.S. waters.
One of the biggest threats to sawfish is marine debris, like fishing gear. Fishing lines or nets can tangle around the sawfish's rostrum, getting caught in the teeth. This can break and damage the teeth and alter how the animal feeds, or it can otherwise weigh the animal down. Even though the Endangered Species Act protects these creatures from direct harm and harassment by people, marine debris is an indirect effect that everyone on land can help eliminate.
A well-known characteristic of sharks is their continual turnover of teeth. Guests walking through Shark Alley can spot the evidence: the stark, white, pointed triangles scattered throughout the dark gravel. Most of these teeth belong to the exhibit's sand tiger and sandbar sharks and are either curved and needle-like or flat and serrated—excellent for piercing and tearing prey, respectively. Regrowing teeth likely arose as an adaptation due to sharks and rays having skeletons made of cartilage instead of bone. Without a strong tooth socket, the teeth loosen as the shark bites its food and eventually fall out.