The “king of the ocean” is a title that applies to any number of more interesting marine animals, depending on whom you talk to. But for many, the great white shark is the undisputed ruler of the seas.
Great white sharks instill both terror and awe in most of us. Averaging 15 feet in length and weighing up to 5,000 pounds, great white sharks are formidable creatures that are notorious for attacks on unwitting swimmers, although some experts will tell you that many of the attacks attributed to great whites are actually perpetrated by the aggressive and feisty bull shark.
While great white sharks are feared by many, they’re also highly revered animals. They have some pretty incredible features that make them one of the more interesting shark species in the oceans.
A Toothy Beast
Great white shark teeth are favorite tourist souvenirs. Their top teeth are large and triangular in shape and are sharp and serrated to help them tear flesh away from their prey. Their bottom teeth are narrower and are used to hold the prey firmly while they chomp away.
Great whites have up to 300 teeth at any given time, situated in about 7 rows. When a tooth is lost during a battle or while feeding, the tooth behind it moves up to replace it. Great whites lose and re-grow thousands of teeth over the course of their lives, which average about 30 years.
A Voracious Feeder
Humans eat about one ton of food every year. Great white sharks, by comparison, consume about 11 tons of food annually, mostly comprised of seals, sea lions, small whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. After a big meal, a great white shark can go three months without another.
Great white sharks often have huge scratches and mean scars from battling with their prey. When a great white shark attacks, it will roll its eyeballs into the back of its head to keep them from getting gouged out. Sharks don’t actually chew their food, but rather use their sharp teeth to rip their prey into chunks that they swallow whole.
One very surprising fact about great white sharks is that they avoid fighting one another over food. If one shark is feeding on a big whale and another shows up unexpectedly for dinner, the feeding shark will happily share its catch. But if there’s only enough for one and the visitor thinks he should be the one to eat, the sharks will engage in a tail-slapping contest, swimming past one another and slapping their tails on the surface of the water. Whoever gets the most and biggest splashes in wins the prey.
What’s Not on the Great White’s Menu
Surprisingly, humans are not on the preferred menu of great white sharks. Most attacks on humans by great whites happen out of curiosity, and most are not fatal. The shark may see something shiny or colorful in the water – a watch, a bright, fluorescent swimsuit – and swim over to investigate. When this thing turns out to be attached to a living creature, the shark thinks, “dinner!” and bumps and bites. Once the shark realizes it’s just bit into a human, it usually swims off. Sharks don’t like human flesh, and they can’t digest our bones very easily.
Six Sharp Shark Senses
The great white shark’s nostrils are on the underside of its snout, and they lead to the olfactory bulb. Great white sharks have the largest olfactory bulb of all shark species, and they can detect a single drop of blood in 25 gallons of water.
The retina of a great white shark is divided into two parts. One is adapted for daytime vision and the other is adapted to help it see at night.
The external ears are two little openings that can sense tiny vibrations in the water, and the “ear stone” responds to gravity so the shark knows when it’s upside down or right side up.
Great white sharks have a keen sense of taste thanks to their sensitive taste buds, which tell them whether what they’ve just bitten into is edible.
Their sense of touch comes from their lateral line, which allows them to perceive even tiny vibrations in the water from as far away as 820 feet.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the great white shark is the ability to sense electrical fields. An organ called the “ampullae of Lorenzini” detects electrical currents given off by prey, which helps them find food hidden in crevasses and under the sand on the ocean floor. It also helps them navigate open water by following the magnetic fields that crisscross over the earth’s crust.
Great White Shark Pups
Sharks give birth in one of three ways. Sharks that are oviparous lay a sac of eggs called a “mermaid’s purse,” which attaches itself to a rock or other hard surface to protect it until the pups hatch. Sharks that are viviparous give birth to live sharks that develop in the womb.
Great white sharks are ovoviviparous, which is the best of both worlds. Eggs develop in the mother’s body, but she doesn’t lay them. Instead, the eggs hatch inside, and she gives birth to live shark pups, which are independent from birth and immediately swim off to find food and to avoid being eaten by their mother.
A Fearsome Predator’s Most Fearsome Predator
Great white sharks have very few natural predators. The short list includes orcas and other, larger shark species. Still, they’re listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List due to their most violent and formidable adversary: Us.
Humans are responsible for mass killings of great whites and other shark species, to the tune of between 100 and 273 million sharks every year. Since great white sharks frequently swim close to the shore and live in shallow waters, they’re an easy target for commercial and sports fisherman. Their fins are harvested to sell in the Asian market for shark fin soup, a delicacy, and their skin is used to make fashion accessories. Their fatty liver oils are a common ingredient in cosmetics and other products.
Great white sharks may be the kings of the ocean now, but they’re on the verge of being labeled “endangered.” Keeping the throne may well depend on human intervention through laws and other protective measures to ensure great white sharks are around for future generations to both fear and revere.