The Whitefin Hammerhead Shark (Sphyrna couardi) is one of the most intriguing and majestic sea creatures inhabiting our vast oceans. Though there are nine other spectacular varieties of hammerhead shark, the Whitefin deserves its own special spot on the shelf, partly because of it’s interesting taxonomic history, and also because of it’s awesome characteristics. After learning Whitefin Hammerhead Shark facts, it may just become your new favorite!
The Whitefin Hammerhead Shark was, and to a degree is, considered to be one of the rarest of all shark species– not to say it hasn’t been widely observed. Classified as “Sphyrna couardi” in the early 1950s, the Whitefin Hammerhead was thought to be its own unique species. While the Whitefin is an extremely unique creature, and is certainly as fascinating as its other hammerhead brethren, it turned out to be only slightly different from the already classified Scalloped Hammerhead Shark (S. lewini) in its morphology. In 1986, the researchers John McEachran and Bernard Seret determined that the differences between the two species were too trivial to consider them different. However, to this day, “Whitefin Hammerhead Shark” as well as the scientific “Sphyrna couardi” are recognized terms in the classification of hammerhead species, and are useful in differentiating between the more widespread Scalloped Hammerhead, and the Whitefin, which is exclusively found off of the western coast of Africa– latitudinally between Senegal and the Congo region.
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First off, the Whitefin Hammerhead Shark does not have white fins. It doesn’t even have fins that are tipped with white. The name might come from a lack of dark fin tips, which some other shark species are known to display. Despite this misnomer, the Whitefin is 100% a hammerhead, as well as a shark.
In regards to their coloration, Whitefin Hammerheads are actually closer to a light-brown, bronze, or olive color on their dorsal side. Only the smooth underbelly of this shark is actually white, and this countershading is useful for sneaking up on prey.
Like other sharks in its family, the Whitefin Hammerhead Shark has a head shaped like a hammer. Unlike some of its other hammerhead peers however, the Whitefin exhibits a slightly narrower bladed head. Its head lobes are also longer, but less wide than other Scalloped Hammerheads.
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The “hammerhead” of Sphyrna couardi, known scientifically as a cephalofoil, has the shark’s eyes and nostrils on either side of the “hammer.” While scientists once thought that these sharks evolved such an odd structure to compensate for poor vision, it has since been proven that hammerheads have great vision and the shape helps with maneuverability and hydrodynamics.
Like all sharks, the Whitefin Hammerhead Shark has powerful electroreceptors that help it sense its surroundings. What makes the Whitefin Hammerhead special, compared to other sharks outside of its family, is that the unique shape of its cephalofoil helps it to scan a wider area more thoroughly, optimizing its ability to find and capture prey on the ocean floor.
As stated above, Whitefin Hammerhead Sharks inhabit warm, tropical waters off of the coast of Africa. They prefer to stay close to the ocean floor regardless of distance from the coast, as that is where they find their food. That stated, they don’t often venture deeper than 1600 feet below the ocean’s surface.
Whitefin Hammerhead Sharks eat a variety of smaller ocean creatures, including mackerel, sardines, herring, cephalopods such as octopi and squids, lobsters, crabs, rays and in rare cases, smaller shark species.
Most adult Whitefin Hammerheads will accumulate up to 50 stingray barbs in their mouths and digestive tracts over a lifetime of hunting these rays.
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Whitefin Hammerheads are known to hunt in packs. Younger Whitefins generally stick closer to the coast for their hunting, and the more adult sharks brave deeper waters for their prey.
Whitefin Hammerhead Sharks have a remarkably fast metabolism, which means that they have to eat up to 2% of their body weight every day, or else they risk starvation.
Whitefins have unusually small mouths, compared to other sharks, yet they tend to swallow their prey whole; only taking bites in cases of larger prey. Their mouths are full of serrated teeth, and they also have four to five denticles, which are small teeth that protrude outside of their mouths that aid in grabbing onto prey.
The Whitefin Hammerhead Shark reproduces by internal fertilization. The male organ is called a “clasper,” which is inserted into the females “vent” in order to fertilize her eggs. The Whitefin’s intense mating ritual requires the male to bite the female’s pectoral fin in order to provide anchoring for this process.
The gestation period for a Whitefin’s brood is about a year. They are viviparous, meaning the eggs are fertilized and later hatch inside of the female’s body and the “pups” feed off of a yolk placenta until it is time for their birth.
Whitefin Hammerheads typically give birth in the summertime, in warm coastal waters. Their litters are usually 15 to 31 pups, and these baby sharks are ordinarily 15 to 18 inches in length at their time of birth.
Adult Whitefin Hammerhead Sharks grow to be about 9 feet at maximum with females tending to be larger than males.
While it’s difficult to gauge exactly how large the Whitefin Hammerhead population is, due to the taxonomic confusion, based on population trends exhibited by the broader Scalloped Hammerheads, it is safe to assume that Whitefin Hammerhead Sharks are endangered.
The Whitefin Hammerhead does not have many known predators, other than humans. Whitefin Hammerheads are both killed accidentally by fishermen, and intentionally overfished by commercial fishing industries, as they are considered to be highly valued. The disturbing decrease in numbers is a direct result of this overfishing, and without some major interference, that trend will not be reversible.
Whitefin Hammerhead Sharks are not considered to be a substantial danger to humans. Their small mouths make it difficult to bite a human, and they are naturally docile. Historically, they have been known only to attack humans when they feel threatened. There is not one documented case of a fatality related to a Whitefin Hammerhead attack.
Whitefin Hammerhead Sharks are endlessly fascinating, and are worthy not only of our academic attention, but also of our ecological support. Since they are already endangered, it’s important to act now, and help to preserve this unique species. The first step is staying interested, and learning as many Whitefin Hammerhead shark facts as we can!