It’s Shark Week: Appreciating and Fearing the Great White

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This column, That Nature Show, is about the nature right under your nose: in our backyards, playgrounds and parks! Stop and look around, you’ll be amazed at what surrounds you. 

It’s been Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. I hope all you shark lovers (and who isn’t, especially when viewed from the safety of your couch?) have been raising your goblet of rock. The creatures are television gold, and so popular there have been numerous retail tie-ins including ice cream flavors at Cold Stone, the favorite of my son, 9. Of course his favorite shark is the Great White. Second favorite shark? The mako. Third favorite? The basking. Distant last favorite: the whale shark.

My daughter, 7, says she wishes there were such a thing as a pink cupcake shark with sparkles, because, if there were, that would be her favorite. Failing the evolution of such an animal (Dare to dream? There is a Pink Amazonian River Dolphin, after all), she says her favorite shark is also the Great White.

The Great White is everyone’s favorite sea-scare. My what great big teeth you have!  Who hasn’t had a spine tingle while swimming in the waters off Ocean City, thinking as you paddle, what if? What if you saw a cresting ominous fin? Here’s what happened when Woods Hole Oceanographic scientists caught a Great White on film: the thing attacked their camera.

Great White sharks are top predators. Apex predators. Top of the oceanic food chain.  They eat seals, and tuna, chunks of dead whale carcass, and whatever else they can bite, like oh, for instance, your surfboard. But that’s extremely rare. You’re more apt to get sunburned at the beach than bitten.

The ancestors of the Great White had smooth teeth and ate mostly fish, in other words, they were were piscivores,  say the scientists who study prehistoric shark teeth. (Incidentally you can find ancient shark teeth nearby, at Calvert Cliffs, “which were formed over 10 to 20 million years ago when all of Southern Maryland was covered by a warm, shallow sea.“) But somewhere back in the murky waters of prehistory, a shark developed a tooth notched like a bread knife — all the better to eat marine mammals.

Great Whites are the largest predatory fish in the sea. Females, which are larger than males, can be up to 20 feet long. How’s that for a fish tale? How’s this: their bite force is second only to an alligator’s. And they’re not even true fish. They don’t have a bony skeleton. Like their cousins the skates and rays, sharks are cartilaginous.

Cartilaginous that is, except for those teeth. 



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