Great White Shark

White Shark / Dave Fleetham/Design Pics/Perspectives/Getty Images
White Shark, Mexico. Dave Fleetham/Design Pics/Perspectives/Getty Images

The white shark, commonly called the great white shark, is one of the most iconic and feared creatures of the ocean. With its razor-sharp teeth and menacing appearance, it certainly looks dangerous. But the more we learn about this creature, the more we learn they are not indiscriminate predators, and definitely don't prefer humans as prey.

Great White Shark Identification

Great white sharks are relatively large, although likely not as large as they might be in our imagination.

The largest shark species is a plankton eater, the whale shark. Great whites average about 10-15 feet in length, and their maximum size is estimated at a length of 20 feet and weight of 4,200 pounds. Females are generally larger than males. They have a stout body, black eye, a steel gray back and a white underside.

Classification:

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Chondrichthyes
  • Subclass: Elasmobranchii
  • Order: Lamniformes
  • Family: Lamnidae
  • Genus: Carcharodon
  • Species: carcharias

 

Where Do Great White Sharks Live?

Great white sharks are widely distributed across the world's oceans. This shark resides mostly in temperature waters in the pelagic zone. They can range to depths over 775 feet. They may patrol coastal areas inhabited by pinnipeds.

Feeding:

The white shark is an active predator, and primarily eats marine mammals such as pinnipeds and toothed whales. They also sometimes eat sea turtles.

The great white's predatory behavior is poorly understood, but scientists are beginning to learn more about their curious nature. When a shark is presented with an unfamiliar object, it will "attack" it to determine if it is a potential food source, often using the technique of a surprise attack from below.

If the object is determined unpalatable (which is usually the case when a great white bites a human), the shark releases the prey and determines not to eat it. This is evidenced by seabirds and sea otters with wounds from white shark encounters.

Reproduction:

White sharks give birth to live young, making white sharks viviparous. The embryos hatch in uteri, and are nourished by eating unfertilized eggs. They are 47-59 inches at birth. There is much more to learn about this shark's reproduction. Gestation is estimated at about one year, although its exact length is unknown, and the average litter size of a white shark is also unknown.

Shark Attacks:

 

While great white shark attacks aren't a big threat to humans in the grand scheme of things (you're more likely to die from a lightning strike, alligator attack or on a bicycle than from a great white shark attack), white sharks are the #1 species identified in unprovoked shark attacks, a statistic that doesn't do much for their reputation.

This is more likely because of their investigation of potential prey than a desire to eat humans. Sharks prefer fatty prey with lots of blubber like seals, and whales - and don't generally like us - we have too much muscle!

See the Florida Museum of Icthyology's Relative Risk of Shark Attacks to Humans site for more information on how likely you are to be attacked by a shark versus other dangers.

That said, nobody wants to be attacked by a shark. So if you're in an area where sharks may be seen, reduce your risk by following these shark attack tips.

Conservation:

The white shark is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List because they tend to reproduce slowly and are vulnerable to targeted white shark fisheries and as bycatch in other fisheries. Because of their fierce reputation gained from Hollywood movies such as "Jaws," there is illicit trade in white shark products such as jaws and teeth.

Sources:

  • Compagno, L., Dando, M. and S. Fowler. 2005. Sharks of the World. Princeton University Press.
  • Fergusson, I., Compagno, L. & Marks, M. 2000. Carcharodon carcharias. (Online) IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2009.1. Accessed September 6, 2009.