Great white sharks are the kings and queens of the ocean, enjoying life at the top of the food chain. Intelligent and curious, great whites average 15 feet in length and weigh up to 2.5 tons! But there’s a lot more to great white sharks than their large size and bad-boy reputation.
The media-fueled fear we have of great white sharks is severely misplaced. Understanding and appreciating these creatures is essential for protecting them from extinction at the hands of their most fearsome predator: the human.
Here are 10 facts about great white sharks that you may not have known, and which will give you a new appreciation for these amazing marine creatures.
1. Shark pups hatch from their eggs while they’re still in the womb
Female great white sharks begin breeding around the age of 20. The eggs of the female are fertilized inside her body and hatch while still in the womb. The live shark pups aren’t nourished by a placenta, but rather feed on unfertilized eggs – and each other! After a yearlong gestation period, anywhere from 2 to 10 pups are born.
Newborn shark pups have a full set of teeth, and immediately swim away from the mother shark and start looking for a snack. Great white shark pups feed on small marine animals like fish and rays. As they grow, they add larger prey to their diet, eventually feeding on sea lions, seals, small whales, dolphins, and sea turtles.
2. Sharks swim at speeds of up to 35 miles per hour
The torpedo-shaped body and powerful tail of the great white shark enable it to swim as fast as 35 miles per hour, only half as fast as the Atlantic sailfish, which reaches speeds of almost 70 miles per hour. Still, most marine animals have a hard time out-swimming a great white – if they see it in time! Great white sharks are notorious for sneaking up on their prey. Once they have their target in site, great whites use a burst of high speed to slam into their pending meal, simultaneously biting it with their powerful jaws, which feature rows of sharp teeth.
The great white’s ability to swim fast helps it migrate very long distances. The award for the longest recorded migration of any fish ever goes to a great white shark named Nicole, who swam from South Africa to Australia and back in 2005. Her nine-month journey covered 12,400-miles!
3. Sharks use and lose about 1,000 teeth over their lifetime
Teeth come and teeth go, especially when you’re a great white shark gnawing on all manner of large marine creatures. With up to seven rows of teeth – 300 in all at any given time – great whites are fearsome marine predators who can kill a large marine mammal with just one well-placed bite. Their teeth are about three inches long and serrated to help them rip apart their prey, which they swallow whole in huge chunks. As they fall out, missing teeth are replaced by those in the rows behind, sometimes within 24 hours!
4. Sharks don’t like to fight over food
Great whites often cooperate with each other on hunting sprees. But when a lone shark makes a kill, it’s usually happy to share the bounty with its pals. But if there’s only enough food for one, a tail-slapping contest usually solves the problem of who gets to eat. The competing sharks swim past one another, slapping their huge tails on the surface of the water. The shark that gets in the most slaps wins the meal.
5. Sharks eat 11 tons of food every year
That’s a lot of food, compared to the average human consumption of just under one ton a year. But it’s not really all that surprising, considering great white sharks can weigh up to 5,000 pounds. And when you consider that the average sea lion – a favorite meal for the great white – weighs more than half a ton and a juvenile elephant seal, another favorite, can weigh 2,400 pounds, great whites can rack up a lot of tonnage with just a handful of meals. In fact, after a large meal, the great white shark can go up to three months without eating.
6. Sharks have a sixth sense: Electromagnetism
Sharks have highly developed senses, but perhaps the most interesting sense they use is that of electromagnetism. The pores on the snouts of great white sharks contain cells called the Ampullae of Lorenzini, which can detect the power and direction of electromagnetic currents to help them navigate through the open ocean by following the magnetic fields that crisscross the earth’s crust.
7. Sharks can live for up to 70 years
For a long time, it was believed that the lifespan of a great white shark capped out around 30 years. But a recent study by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that great white sharks can actually live as long as 70 years. This is due, in part, to the fact that great whites enjoy a position high up on the food chain. Their only natural predators are orca whales and a handful of larger sharks.
8. Sharks can sense a drop of blood in 25 gallons of water
Great white sharks have an incredible sense of smell. Not only can they sense a drop of blood in 25 gallons of water, but they can also smell blood in the wide, open ocean from a staggering three miles away! Their amazing smelling abilities are thanks to the olfactory bulb, a sense organ that sits behind the nostrils on the underside of the shark’s snout.
Great whites also have an incredible sense of hearing that allows them to sense even the tiniest vibrations in the water, and their “ear stone” responds to gravity and tells them their position in the water: upside down, right side up, head up, or head down.
9. You’re more likely to be killed by a dog than a shark
Great white sharks are the stuff of nightmares in popular culture, thanks to 1975’s blockbuster thriller Jaws and the more recent popularity of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. And let’s not forget the ridiculous (but rather entertaining) made-for-TV movie, Sharknado!
But in the real world, you’re more likely to die from a bee sting or dog bite than a great white shark attack. Worldwide, sharks attack about 75 humans a year, resulting in the deaths of about 10. Most attacks are provoked, and those that aren’t are usually a case of mistaken identity. Sharks don’t eat humans. They don’t like the taste of us, and they can’t digest our bones very easily. Usually, they don’t even realize we’re human until they take a bite, and once they have a taste, they’re all, “Ew!” and they swim away.
10. …But, between 20 and 100 million sharks die each year due to human fishing activity
On the other hand, humans are responsible for killing up to 30 million sharks every year – nearly four times the population of New York City – due to the fishing industry. Think about that for just a second. Thirty MILLION sharks a year, killed at the hands of those who sell their jaws and fins, fishermen whose nets and lines the purposely or accidentally trap them, and shameful, hate-fueled campaigns for revenge that are instigated by the media after a (very rare) shark attack on a human.