Jaw-some shark facts to sink your teeth into

4 minute read

Emily Cooper, Science Communicator

12 Jun 2024

As one of the most recognisable marine animals, sharks hold a special place in the heart of many ocean enthusiasts. Dive into some key facts about these jaw-some sea creatures to impress those around you.

Not all sharks look the same

When people think of sharks, the image of the great white is likely to come to mind, but there are actually more than 500 species of sharks.

Some of them appear stranger than fiction, like the hammerhead shark with its distinctive head shape (called a cephalofoil), or the goblin shark with its elongated, flattened snout (known as a rostrum) and jaws that can extend three inches out of its mouth to catch prey.

The dwarf lantern shark is the smallest shark ever discovered

Measuring around 6-8 inches when fully grown, the dwarf lantern shark is the smallest shark species. These tiny creatures can be found in the deep sea around the Caribbean, where they feed on small fish, squid and crustaceans. Its small size means that it is likely to be preyed upon by larger fish including other sharks that hunt in the same depths.

Sharks have been around for around 400 million years, predating dinosaurs and even trees

Like jellyfish, sharks have adapted so well to their environment that they've survived all five major mass extinction events in the Earth’s history. This includes the massive asteroid that many scientists believe hit Earth 66 million years ago and killed off around 75% of all species, including non-avian dinosaurs.

Of course, not all species of sharks survived these mass extinction events - but deep-water species and dietary generalists (species that will eat a wide range of food sources) tend to have better odds of surviving mass extinctions. The diversity of shark species may have also played a role in their survival as a group.

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The Greenland shark is thought to be the longest-living vertebrate in the world

Greenland sharks can live for more than 500 years. Scientists worked this out by using radiocarbon dating on the shark’s eye lens nucleus. It's also thought that female Greenland sharks may only be able to reproduce after they've reached 100 years of age. If so, this could cause concerns for their population levels.

No one has ever seen a great white shark give birth

Although we know great whites are viviparous (they give birth to live young), no one has ever documented seeing it happen. There's still a lot we do not know about this famous shark species, including its mating behaviour. These open-ocean predators are harder to study than smaller shark species, which are more easily captured.

Great White Shark

A great white shark

Credit: Jeremy Stafford Deitsch

Sharks inhabit all of the world's oceans

As ancient species, sharks have had a lot of time to adapt to various marine environments, ranging from the tropical waters of the Pacific to the cold, Arctic waters. Some sharks are even found in UK waters, while others, like the bull shark, can be found in rivers! This is because they're euryhaline, meaning they can survive in both salt and fresh water.

Sharks are not killing machines

Despite what films such as Jaws and Deep Blue Sea might suggest, sharks aren't scary sea creatures that actively see humans as food.

While many species of sharks are apex predators and have the potential to be dangerous, shark attacks are actually rather rare, with only 69 recorded shark bites recorded in 2023.

Conflict can occur when sharks feels threatened or provoked, or mistake humans for their natural prey. The silhouette, swimming pattern and splashing caused by someone in the water may appear similar to a seals. However, after realising its mistake, a shark will often retreat.

Not all sharks hunt in the same way

Although you may have seen some remarkable videos of a great white shark breaching the ocean as it ambushes a seal from below, other species of sharks use different tactics to hunt their prey.

Angel sharks bury themselves in the seabed and wait for their unsuspecting prey to come to them, while whale sharks are filter feeders. Amazingly, some sharks have even been recorded working in packs - broadnose sevengill sharks do this to hunt larger prey.

A lot of sharks are under threat from outside sources

In 2021, the the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimated that more than 1/3 of all sharks species are threatened with extinction. This is due to several factors including overfishing, habitat loss and, in some places, a demand for shark fins.

A dogfish shark hiding in seaweed

A dogfish shark hiding in seaweed

Credit: Nick & Caroline Robertson-Brown/frogfishphotography.com

There is still a lot we do not know about many shark species

Their elusive nature, the vastness of the ocean and our own technological limitations in exploring the deep sea mean that there's still a lot we can learn about sharks. In fact, we're still discovering new species, with a new variety of demon catshark found in the deep waters of Australia only officially recognised in 2023.

With a lot of time, resource and meticulous research, we're slowly unravelling the mysteries of these majestic animals and getting a better glimpse at the misunderstood world of sharks and the human impact that we're having on their environment. But, we must ensure that we secure the future of these species and their home, first.

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