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Biological Sciences

March 31st, 2011

Notorious & Misunderstood: The Great White Shark

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Written by: Cendan Luis
Tags: , great white shark, , , , shark attack,

It is July 1, 1916. Charles Epting Vansant, 25, is on vacation with his family in Beach Haven, a resort town in Long Beach Island. He makes his way to the beach for a swim before returning to his family for dinner. Vansant enters the water with a Chesapeake Bay retriever which was playing on the beach. All seems well. That is, until he begins screaming. Nearby bathers assume that the shouting swimmer is calling out to the dog, but he is actually in great pain. A lifeguard eventually comes to his rescue, the water red with Vansant’s blood. Upon reaching the shore, the gravity of the attack is terribly clear; Vansant’s left thigh is stripped of its flesh. This was only the first of five total attacks that took place in what is now known as the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916. During this time, several sharks were hunted down in an attempt to find the animal or animals which were behind these attacks. The more commonly blamed species were the bull sharks and the great white sharks. These events became the inspiration for Peter Benchley’s popular 1974 novel Jaws. Steven Spielberg’s film adaptation of the novel would be released the next year. Over the years, people began to demonize sharks and consider most species potential man-eaters. However, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) was given an almost legendary status. Over the years, great white sharks have been killed due to a mix of demonization and shameless sport to the point where the species’ future is in question. In reality, shark attacks are rare and the ironic truth is that humans have hunted and killed great white sharks vastly more often than the animals have attacked people. As scientists study sharks more and more, the truth about these animals is brought to light. These animals have a vital role in their ecosystem and are incredible creatures to observe and study. They keep the populations of many species within healthy limits due to their long list of prey animals. Barbarically killing them off serves no rational purpose and only diminishes their necessary effect on the marine food chain. Fortunately, the worth of these sharks has become clear to many. They are powerful hunters which serve a necessary purpose in the marine food chain. The more we study them, the more this becomes a realization. In order to save these great animals, a true understanding of them must be met, an understanding that requires a visit to the world of the great white shark.

The great white shark is the largest of all predatory sharks and among the most powerful predators in the ocean.

The great white shark belongs the Lamnidae family (also known as the mackerel sharks), along with mako sharks and salmon sharks. It possesses a conical snout, black eyes, bulky body, and crescent-shaped tail fin. It is known for its white belly (hence its common name) and the rest of its body is usually gray in color (which can vary greatly in tone). They are one of the largest sharks as well as the largest predatory fish in the sea, with adults reaching an average of 4-5 meters in length (females being larger than males) and over a ton in weight. They swim in a rather stiff-bodied style, unlike most other sharks which move in a more graceful manner. Their two intimidating rows of upper teeth are triangular in shape and serrated, making them effective for slicing through flesh. Their lower teeth are much narrower, which is of great aid when holding onto struggling prey. Other rows of teeth behind the main ones will rotate to the front in order to take the place of broken or lost teeth.[1] Great white sharks are very unusual as they are actually capable of maintaining the temperature of their swimming muscles, stomach, and brain. This is the result of a special circulatory modification called the retia mirablia which allows the great white to retain metabolic heat instead of losing it to the surrounding water.[2] Due to this unusual advantage, the great white can survive easily in colder waters. A warm body also provides the big predator with greater speed and muscle contraction, which can result in a higher maintained swimming speed.[3] As a result of this incredible trait, the great white is considered both endothermic (its body temperature is maintained via internal means) and a poikilotherm (cold-blooded creature). The only other sharks which share this trait are the remaining mackerel sharks and the thresher sharks of the Alopiidae family.[4]

Great white sharks are easily capable of slicing through flesh with their powerful jaws and rows of serrated teeth.

The great white is certainly a traveler; the species is found in coastal waters throughout the world. They occur from California to Alaska, the east coast of the USA, throughout much of the Gulf coast, Hawaii, most of South America, South Africa, Australia (minus the north coast), New Zealand, the Mediterranean Sea, from West Africa to Scandinavia, Japan, and the eastern coastline of China to Russia.[5] Although the species is usually found in coastal waters, it has been observed at depths of around 4000 feet.[6] This has caused some confusion as to whether they should be considered a coastal species. It has also challenged the idea that the populations present throughout the world are discrete, as it is very possible that individuals could simply travel from one populated area to the next either in search of food or for mating.

The great white is well known for its hunting behavior for small prey like seals, which is nothing short of a spectacle to witness. Swimming slowly near the rocky bottom, the predator singles out a specific animal swimming at the surface of the water. Once the shark makes its choice, it accelerates towards the prey and smashes into it, taking a strong bite in the process. The great white builds up so much speed while doing this that its entire body jumps out of the water while performing the attack! The wounded prey is usually stunned by the crashing assault and then consumed by the shark. This impressive ambush style makes the great white one of the most interesting predators to observe. Great white sharks prey on many different species of fish, seals, sea lions, marine birds, turtles, carrion, and even small whales and other sharks.[7] This makes them a valuable species which keeps different creatures from becoming overpopulated. Cannibalism among the species is rare, but occurs from time to time. On one occasion in Australia, a great white measuring 3 meters in length was nearly bitten in half by a much larger individual.[8] Part of what makes the great white such a successful predator is what some may call a sixth sense. On the snout of the great white are sense organs called electroreceptors (also known as the ampullae of Lorenzini), a trait shared with other sharks, rays, and chimaeras. They form a special network of canals filled with a jelly-like substance and allow the shark to detect electromagnetic fields in the water created by the movement of animals. The limits of this organ’s capabilities in the great white shark are currently unknown due to the difficulty of studying these sharks. However, other sharks like the smooth dogfish (Mustelus canis) are capable of detecting electrical fields as small as 5 billionths of a volt per square centimeter.[9] This organ ensures that no prey can truly hide from these predators.

Great whites are known for their impressive hunting style.

The only known predator of great whites apart from humans is the larger and more powerful orca (Orcinus orca), the largest of the dolphins. One incident occurred on October 4, 1997 in the Farralon Islands off California where a female orca attacked and killed a great white and then proceeded to eat its liver.[10] Soon after the attack, the entire population of great white sharks vanished from the Farralon islands. Another attack took place 3 years later in the area, and much like in the first incident, the great white population disappeared once more.[11]

When one studies the great white shark (or any other species of shark, for that matter), one does not find a malevolent monster. All that is observed is a spectacular but dangerous predator that is guided by instinct. Many shark attacks are the result of instinctive behavior on the part of the shark. A majority of shark attack victims are bitten once by the animal and then left alone. This “test bite” is used by the shark to determine whether the object of its attention is suitable for consumption. This means that sharks will very rarely consider humans food. However, even though the force of a test bite is restrained, it is still more than capable of severely damaging the recipient of the bite. Such is the power that these animals possess. Other attacks are cases of mistaken identity, such as when the silhouette of a surfboarder is misread by the shark and the animal interprets it for that of a sea lion. What can be known from these rare attacks is that when a person enters the water, he has entered a very different domain. He crosses over into a new world where the sight of man is alien to many creatures. It is not to say that people must avoid beaches and the sea, but rather that caution and knowledge of the marine world is important.

Due to their undeserved reputation, great whites have been over-hunted to the point of nearing an endangered status. Serious

So where is this monster, this diabolical killer that has become the image of the great white? When one observes this amazing creature in the wild, all that is found is a superbly successful predator that has been demonized and hunted extensively for unjustified reasons. Fortunately, more are beginning to realize this predator’s place in the wild and its true worth, providing hope for the future of the species. The great white shark is among the most spectacular of marine predators, an awesome creature that is undeserving of its tainted reputation.

[1] “Great White Shark Carcharodon carcharias.” Available from Internet; accessed 30 March 2011.

[2] ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research. “Body Temperature of Lamnoid Sharks.” Available from Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.

[3] Ibid

[4] “Carcharodon carcharias, Great White Shark.” Available from Internet; accessed 30 March 2011.

[5] “Great White Shark Carcharodon carcharias.” Available from Internet; accessed 30 March 2011.

[6] Thomas, Pete (April 5, 2010). “Great white shark amazes scientists with 4000-foot dive into abyss”. GrindTV.

[7] Shark “Great White Shark.” Available from Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.

[8] “Monster shark bites great white in half”. The Daily Telegraph (Australia). 27 October 2009.

[9] ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research. “Electroreception.” Available from Internet; accessed 31 March 2011.

[10] “Nature Shock Series Premiere: The Whale That Ate the Great White”. 1997-10-04. Retrieved 2011-03-31.

[11] Turner, Pamela S. (Oct/Nov 2004). “Showdown at Sea: What happens when great white sharks go fin-to-fin with killer whales?”. National Wildlife (National Wildlife Federation) 42 (6). Retrieved 2011-03-31.

About the Author

Cendan Luis
Luis Cendan is the chief editor and writer for the Vertebrate Journal. Author & Co-founder, [email protected]



  1. Tamika Guadian

    Wow some of the info of this post is news to me.thank you for updating me.

  2. jrosenfield

    orcas don’t prey on great white but they are faster bigger and stronger than great whites

    • Cendan Luis

      Actually, orcas have preyed on great white sharks in the past. These events are confirmed. It simply happens on very rare occasions.

  3. Ima

    Good post. Its realy good. More info help me.

  4. kmarrs

    What is the volume and page number for this journal entry?

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