10 Interesting Facts About Great White Sharks
Great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are one of the most popular fish in the world. These massive sharks can grow up to 20+ feet and weight 2+ tons, making them the apex predator of the ocean. Named after their white bellies, the top of their bodies is usually a dark grey, which helps camouflage the species in dark waters.
They can be found in all of the world’s oceans, though prefer to hunt in slightly cooler coastal waters. But not too cold, there’s no record of great whites traveling to Arctic or Antarctic waters. The furthest south they travel is Dyer Island in South Africa, also known as “Shark Alley.” It has the greatest population of great whites on the planet and has been the site of hundreds of research projects.
So without further ado, here are the most interesting facts about the most infamous shark species.
10 interesting great white shark facts
1. They’re older than dinosaurs (and live almost as long as humans)
The ancestry of great white sharks goes back at least 400 million years, with scientists tracing shark-like fossils to prehistoric dates. Over the last half a billion years or so, they’ve evolved into the top predators in the ocean.
Up until recently, scientists thought that great white sharks had a relatively short lifespan of ~20 years. But it turns out, they live nearly as long humans – up to 70+ years.
2. Their reproduction habits are largely a mystery
Little is known about how and where great white sharks mate, but here’s what is known:
Like the rest of the animal kingdom, the mating process is quite violent – females often end up with mating scars as males try to hold onto them.
Female great whites are pregnant for 11-12 months before giving birth to one or two pups. Though as many as 10 pups can be conceived in a litter, pups often eat each other in the womb, resulting in just one or two actually being born.
3. They use electrosensory to locate prey and navigate the oceans
Sharks use electroreception to hunt prey and navigate their way through the oceans. And though all sharks use this magnetic sense, great whites are particularly good at it.
This sense is attributed to the Ampullae of Lorenzini, ampullary sense organs found in the shark’s nose. Great whites have thousands of these tiny organs, which enable them to detect wounded prey from miles away. They can sense even ten millionths of a volt from great distances, making them incredible hunters.
Ironically, modern shark deterrence use this electroreception to keep sharks away from swimmers, surfers, and fishers. The technology emits a strong electromagnetic field, stronger than any naturally-occurring electromagnetic waves. The powerful technology does not harm the shark but deters them from exploring the source of the pulse, keeping them away.
4. They don’t attack humans, nor do they confuse us for seals
Despite their bad reputation, sharks aren’t man-eaters. With less than 10 fatal shark attacks per year, the odds of being attacked are incredibly low.
One common misconception is that great whites confuse surfers for seals. They’re apex predators – they don’t get confused. Great whites attack seals and other prey from below, usually launching themselves into the air. But their behavior around humans is quite different, suggesting that the animal knows the difference between surfers, swimmers, and seals.
5. They have 300 teeth (which they can move)
If there’s one thing that everyone knows about great white sharks, it’s that they have hundreds of razor sharp teeth. With seven rows of 300 teeth and the most powerful jaws in the ocean, they can deliver a bite force of nearly 2 tonnes per square inch.
Their special ability to extend their jaw makes their bite unique. As they approach their prey, the jaws extend while the head recedes back. The lower jaw attacks first, followed by the upper jaw to secure the prey. And instead of chewing the animal right away, they violently shake their heads from side to side to shred the animal with their sharp teeth.
6. They’re one of the fastest fish in the ocean
Their massive size and bite power are enough to keep prey far away. But unfortunately for smaller animals, great whites can reach speeds up to 40 mph when hunting, making them one of the fastest fish in the ocean. They’re basically a bus with teeth.
They lurk at lower depths, using their grey backs to camouflage themselves from above. When they detect prey near the surface, they propel themselves upwards at top speeds and launch themselves several feet into the air, a practice known as breaching. If you’ve ever watched Shark Week, breaching is the highlight of the activity.
7. They’re apex predators - only one animal has been known to hunt them
What can beat a great white shark, you might ask? They’re one of the biggest animals in the ocean with a lethal bite force and speed combination, so it’s no surprise that they’re an apex predator. But they do have one known predator – orcas. These killer whales are larger, smarter, and tend to fight in pods, giving them a significant advantage over great whites. Research suggests that great whites tend to avoid orcas so as to avoid a fight.
And while uncommon, tiger sharks and other groups of sharks have been known to hunt great whites with success.
Ironically enough, they have a weak spot – tonic immobility. It’s a reflex that causes a temporary state of inactivity, much like hypnosis. Though often used by researchers to safely study the animals, orcas have been able to exploit this weakness in great white sharks, rendering them unable to fight back.
8. Unlike other shark species, they’re warm-blooded
Most shark species are cold-blooded, meaning they’re unable to regulate their internal body temperature. But like humans, sharks are warm-blooded, which enables them to live in various climates by raising and lowing their body temperature as needed.
This special ability is attributed to a bodily system known as counter-current heat exchange. It keeps their body warmer than the surrounding water. This extra heat is generated from “white muscles” that run down the length of their body. These white muscles are like turbo boosters, giving the sharks bursts of energy even in cold water.
9. They’re not picky eaters
Their diet consists largely of seals, but they’ll eat nearly anything. They feast on whales, dolphins, sharks, and other pelagic fish. And as we mentioned, they even eat other shark embryos in the womb.
This “diet” consists of approximately 11 tons of food per year. For reference, a 150-pound human only eats about a half-ton per year.
10. They’re at risk of extinction
Great white sharks are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List, meaning they’re considered to be at a high risk of human-caused extinction. Since the 1970s, great white shark populations have been on a massive decline.
In 1975, Steven Spielberg released “Jaws,” a Hollywood blockbuster that’s responsible for more than just ticket sales. Since the film’s debut, shark populations have declined by 70% as a result of overfishing, bycatch, and poaching. The film’s portrayal of great whites as vicious man-eaters has made them largely dispensable to humans, meaning that conservation efforts are an uphill battle.
But that doesn’t mean all conservation efforts are futile. These facts are only interesting if great white sharks are present in the oceans. Humans must work to demystify and protect these impressive sharks, as they are critical to the marine ecosystem.