Great Whites Are Social Creatures

Great White Shark

Carcharodon carcharias, commonly known as great white sharks, to most are seen as killing machines of the ocean, but in reality they are so much more than that and should be seen as the incredible creatures they are.  Great white sharks are very intelligent, social creatures that, similar to many other creatures, are built to hunt.  A few movies that pin sharks as the human hunters in water can drastically shift the public opinion and even lead give humans a reason to hunt these amazing creatures!  Florida Museum has been charting international shark attacks since 1580 and while Great Whites lead the list in fatalities, only 80 deaths have been recorded in the 438 years of the list (that’s 0.183 deaths a year if you were wondering).  In comparison, 51 people have died from being struck by lightening in the past 20 years, nearly 7 people die yearly in the U.S. from venomous spiders, and almost a million people die every year from malaria transmitted by mosquitoes!  This article is being written shed a new light on these underappreciated animals and explain how sophisticated and amazing they are!

Taken at Isla Guadalupe, Mexico, August 2006” By Terry Goss CC BY 2.5

Sharks have 6 senses, all which allow them to navigate the sea and find food a incredibly dark environment.  Sight is a very important sense for sharks to be able to hunt, which is why sharks have such developed eyes.  Sharks eyes are primarily made of cones with helping detect light in darker environments but they do have cones which allow them to see the color green.  The deeper the species of shark lives, the larger the pupil is allowing more light in,  but great whites, not having eyelids, roll their eyeballs back to prevent damage to the eye.  Sharks have endolymphatic pores which allow for them to hear.  Sharks only hear low-frequency sounds, but they do have a very good sense of direction from what they are able to hear.  Their sense of smell is what they’re most famous for as they’re able to smell a drop of blood from a quarter mile away.  Wow, this is incredible! But how does a shark know where to go if a scent comes from 1300 feet away?  Sharks, like dogs, smell in stereo which helps them detect which direction the scent came from.  Smelling in stereo is done by knowing exact time each nostril senses the smell  and if there is a delay between the two nostrils, the shark knows the scent is coming from the side where he first sensed it.  The last sense sharks share with us is the ability to taste.  Sharks, unlike humans, have taste buds covering the inside of their mouth and even their throat.  However, similar to humans, sharks take a small taste of their food before eating to make sure it fits into their diet which is very high in fat.  Sharks also have the senses known as electroreception and lateral line.  Electroreception is used to detect small amounts of electricity which all animals are constantly releasing due to muscle contractions.  Lateral line is the ability to sense small changes in the water pressure, such as when a prey or predator is approaching it from the side.

Great White Shark” By Terry Goss CC BY 2.5

Great whites, unlike what’s depicted in most films, actually hunt in small groups rather than solo.  Different characteristics of individuals can also be seen in groups of great whites, some may be timid, while others may be more agressive to the point where they assert dominance by body slamming and even gently biting one another.  Great whites can even cooperate to catch prey or attempt to breach before a nearby shark by sensing the shark’s vibrations.  Great whites are famous for their magnificent displays while hunting which feature them launching their entire bodies above the surface of the water, but they actually have many styles of predation which can vary depending on location of the prey and other sharks in the area.  Sharks can share food as a group but can also be very territorial which they show with the use of very complex body language.

Predatory Behavior of white sharks By R. Aidan Martin, Marine Biology Journal

Great whites are very social creatures which can’t produce noise so instead use body language as a way to communicate to other sharks but also to humans.  Sharks communicating to other sharks isn’t heavily studied but when it comes to feeding, it is more benefiticial for both sharks if one communicates using body language rather than biting the shark causing an injury which could limit their ability to catch future prey in a solitary or cooperative mannar.  One form of body language used as an avoidance display is called the tail slap which consists of one shark using their caudal fin to slap the surface of the water in the direction the other shark is located.  The shark recieving the signal can sense the signal using their vision, hearing, or lateral line sense.  Great whites also perform tilting behavior, which is when one shark rolls onto it’s side and exaggerates it’s tail beats in a specific direction.  A pattern breach is thought to be a more agressive form of a tail slap which is performed by launching a majority of it’s body out of the water, directing the splash towards nearby sharks.  Towards humans, great whites are very curious creatures but remain territorial and want to interact.  Morne Hardenberg, an underwater cameraman, does all of his work without the use of a cage, which he says can get intense but it is important to follow a few rules. If a diver turns and swims aways, it’s ending the interaction with the shark in and acting more like a prey than an acquaintance which is not how sharks, or people, like to be treated.  Hardenberg says the way to interact is to act similar to how the shark would react.  If the shark is coming into your space it’s best to swim towards the shark as a threat.  Hardenberg compares the interaction to a game of chess, if the shark makes a move you must make a move to counter, and it can and will get tense “but they are not mindless killers“.

Great whites have a been poorly viewed by humans because of their place in movie and television but they are sophisticated creatures who should be looked at with a different lens.  I’m sure with more studies conducted, more fascinating information will come about and give more great reasons for people to think these sharks are amazing, but everyone will remember some movie when a shark at a boat…  While this may be, sharks are awesome and deserve a better place in the spotlight.

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