Tiger sharks are named for their dark vertical stripes that resemble those of tigers, although as the sharks age, their stripes fade and sometimes disappear completely. Tiger sharks have other things in common with tigers as well: They’re fierce predators, respected and feared by people and marine animals alike, and they’re considered sacred in some cultures.
Listed as “near endangered,” tiger sharks face decreasing populations largely due to human actions like commercial and sports fishing. These amazing animals aren’t quite as popular as the great white shark, but they’re equally fascinating, as you’re about to find out!
You Can’t Hide From a Tiger Shark!
Although tiger sharks have incredible eyesight, they hunt primarily at night. There are a few ways in which tiger sharks detect their prey without being detected first.
Tiger sharks are counter-shaded, which means the tops and bottoms of their bodies are different colors. On top, tiger sharks are bluish green to light green, making them difficult to see from above. On bottom, they’re yellowish white to white, making them difficult to see from below.
They also swim fairly slowly, making it hard for prey to sense them nearby. Once a tiger shark has its eye on a meal, it moves toward it with a burst of speed and prods it with its snout the way humans prod their food with a fork, getting the lay of the land and preparing to go in for the kill. Tiger sharks eat their prey whole, unless it’s too big, in which case they tear it into huge, more manageable chunks.
In addition to keen senses of sight and sound, tiger sharks have two additional sensory organs that help them find their prey in darkness. Small pits on the shark’s snout contain the ampullae of Lorenzini, a sensory organ that allows sharks to detect electrical impulses that are produced when nearby prey move through the water. The lateral line is another sensory organ that extends down the length of the shark’s sides and allows it to detect tiny vibrations to help it find prey that’s hiding.
Tiger Sharks Are the Trash Cans of the Sea
Hardly a dignified nickname, “trash can of the sea” is nevertheless a fitting moniker for the tiger shark, which will eat just about anything. Although they have enormous appetites, these sharks will eat just for fun, even when they’re not hungry. And they don’t discriminate. They eat all manner of sea life, including sea turtles, stingrays, sea snakes, seals, birds, squids, and even land mammals like cows and deer that fall into the water. This is largely thanks to their spectacularly sharp and astonishingly strong teeth, which feature both cutting surfaces and sawing surfaces.
But the real reason they earned this nickname is that they tend to eat a lot of manmade flotsam and jetsam as well. Scientists investigating the stomach contents of tiger sharks have found numerous non-food items, including oil cans, burlap sacks, baseballs, pieces of ships and boats, jewelry, clothing, books, license plates, tires, and cow hooves!
Tiger Sharks are More Dangerous to Humans than Great White Sharks
Although tiger sharks come in second only to the great white shark in terms of their threat to humans, great white sharks are pretty particular about what they eat, and have a particular disdain for human flesh. Not so, tiger sharks! If you are attacked by a tiger shark, it may not swim away upon tasting your flesh, as great whites typically do. It’s more likely to finish you off.
Tiger sharks are very aggressive, and if they feel threatened, they’ll attack. This is the case in many, if not most, cases of tiger shark attacks on humans. Still, only three or four tiger shark attacks occur each year, mostly in the waters of Hawaii, where these sharks thrive. Between 1959 and 2000, nearly 5000 sharks were killed off the Hawaiian coast in order to set tourists’ minds at ease about swimming in the waters.
But Humans Are More Dangerous to Tiger Sharks Than Tiger Sharks Are to Humans
Due to the massive commercial trade in everything shark, the tiger shark is one of more than 30 shark species in the world that are at risk for extinction.
Tiger sharks are heavily harvested for their fins, skin, and flesh. Because they have lower levels of mercury in their bodies than other sharks, they’re considered to be ideal for shark steaks and shark fin soup. Additionally, their livers have very high levels of Vitamin A, which is used in a wide variety of supplements and cosmetics.
It’s not clear how many tiger sharks are killed every year, but that number is likely very high due to the demand for their meat and the fact that they frequent shallow waters, making them easy for fishermen to spot and kill. However, the number of sharks of all species killed by humans annually exceeds 100 million and may be as high as 273 million.
Females Give Birth to Huge Litters of Shark Pups
Once they reach maturity around 8 years of age, female sharks begin to reproduce. They mate once every three years, resulting in litters that have an average of 40 pups, but which may be as small as 10 or as large as 80 pups.
The gestation period for tiger shark pups is between 14 and 16 months. Once the pups are born, they’re immediately independent, swimming off to find food before they become their mother’s first post-pregnancy meal. Newborn tiger shark pups are 20 to 30 inches long, and over the next 6 to 8 years, they’ll grow as large as 25 feet long and may weigh more than 2,000 pounds.
Tiger Sharks Are Lone Sharks
While some sharks band together in schools, tiger sharks prefer to go solo. The only time they engage in socializing is when they’re looking for a special friend during mating season or happen upon a particularly large kill, which may result in a dinner party of sorts.