Lemon Shark Facts: Description, Behavior, Conservation

Meet the gentle-natured lemon shark

Lemon shark, Tiger Beach, Bahamas
Lemon shark, Tiger Beach, Bahamas.

Don Silcock, Getty Images

The lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) gets its name from its yellow to brown dorsal color, which helps camouflage the fish over a sandy seabed. Although large, powerful, and carnivorous, this shark does not pose a risk to humans.

Fast Facts: Lemon Shark

  • Scientific Name: Negaprion brevirostris
  • Distinguishing Features: Stocky, yellow-colored shark with second dorsal fin almost as large as the first
  • Average Size: 2.4 to 3.1 m (7.9 to 10.2 ft)
  • Diet: Carnivorous, preferring bony fishes
  • Lifespan: 27 years in the wild
  • Habitat: Coastal waters of the Atlantic and Pacific off the Americas
  • Conservation Status: Near threatened
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Chondrichthyes
  • Order: Carcharhiniformes
  • Family: Carcharhinidae

Description

In addition to its color, one easy way to identify a lemon shark is by its dorsal fins. In this species, both dorsal fins are triangular in shape and about the same size as each other. The shark has a short snout and a flattened head that is rich in electroreceptors (ampullae of Lorenzini). Lemon sharks are bulky fish, typically reaching lengths between 2.4 and 3.1 m (7.9 to 10.2 ft) and weights of 90 kg (200 lb). The largest recorded size is 3.4 m (11.3 ft) and 184 kg (405 lb).

Distribution

Lemon sharks are found in both the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, ranging from New Jersey to southern Brazil and Baja California to Ecuador. They may also be found off the western coast of Africa, although there is some dispute whether these sharks are a subspecies.

Lemon shark distribution map.
Lemon shark distribution map. Chris_huh

The sharks prefer warm subtropical water along the continental shelf. Smaller sharks may be found in shallow water, including bays and rivers, while larger specimens may seek deeper water. Mature sharks migrate between hunting and breeding grounds.

Diet

Like all sharks, lemon sharks are carnivores. However, they are more selective than most regarding prey. Lemon sharks choose abundant, intermediate-sized prey, preferring bony fish to cartilaginous fish, crustaceans, or mollusks. Cannibalism has been reported, particularly involving juvenile specimens.

Lemon sharks are known for feeding frenzies. The shark speeds to its victim, uses pectoral fins to brake itself, and then jabs forward to grab prey and shake loose chunks of flesh. Other sharks are attracted to the prey not only by blood and other fluids, but also by sound. Sharks hunting at night track prey using electromagnetic and olfactory sensing.

Social Behavior

Lemon sharks are social creatures that form groups primarily based on similar size. Advantages of social behavior include protection, communication, courtship, and hunting. Disadvantages include competition for food, increased risk of disease, and parasite infestation. Lemon shark brains are comparable to those of birds and mammals, with respect to relative mass. The sharks demonstrate the ability to form social bonds, cooperate, and learn from each other.

Lemon sharks live in groups and are believed to form friendships with each other.
Lemon sharks live in groups and are believed to form friendships with each other. Cat Gennaro, Getty Images

Reproduction

The sharks return to mating grounds and nurseries. Females are polyandrous, taking multiple mates presumably to avoid conflict with males. After a year of gestation, the female gives birth to up to 18 pups. Another year is required before she can mate again. Pups remain in the nursery for several years. Lemon sharks become sexually mature between 12 and 16 years of age and live about 27 years in the wild.

Lemon Sharks and Humans

Lemon sharks are not aggressive toward people. Only 10 shark attacks attributed to lemon sharks have been recorded in the International Shark Attack File. None of these unprovoked bites were fatal.

Negaprion breviostris is one of the best-studied shark species. This is largely due to research by Samuel Gruber at the University of Miami. Unlike many shark species, lemon sharks do well in captivity. The gentle nature of the animals makes them popular dive subjects.

Lemon sharks are popular with divers because they are not ordinarily aggressive toward humans.
Lemon sharks are popular with divers because they are not ordinarily aggressive toward humans. Westend61, Getty Images

Conservation Status

The IUCN Red List categorizes the lemon shark as "near threatened." Human activities are responsible for the species decline, including fishing as well as capture for research and the aquarium trade. This species of shark is fished for food and leather.

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