Species Profile: Great White Shark

Great White Shark facing the camera

Great White Shark

Scientific Name: Carcharodon carcharias

Made famous in the media and film, the Great White Shark is known and feared world wide. A product of 350 million years of evolution, the Great White is perfectly adapted to it’s environment and should have no one to fear – apart from man. Largely misunderstood, this species has been over hunted and the future of the Great White on this planet is uncertain.

Scientific Classification

  • Order: Lamniformes
  • Family: Lamnidae
  • Genus: Carcharodon
  • Species: carcharias
  • Scientific Name: Carcharodon carcharias

The great white shark is scientifically referred to as Carcharodon carcharias. Also known as the white pointer, the white shark, and the formidable white death, this shark species belongs to the Mackerel Shark family- distinguished by their two dorsal fins, 5 gill slits, and the fact that their mouths extend behind the eyes.

Other members of this family include the goblin shark and the megamouth shark. As a vertebrate, the great white shark is classified under the phylum chordata with its cartilaginous skeleton landing it in the class Chordichthyes.

History and Ancestory

For a long time, scientists believed that the great white shark was a descendant of the megalodon shark also known as Carcharocles megalodon. The beast’s skull was discovered in the 19th century with the saw-like ridges on the large teeth being the basis of this theory.

However, in 2012 the discovery of Carcharodon hubelli cast doubt on the original theory. The fossils bore more similarity to the current great white shark with the saw-like large teeth, the cartilaginous vertebrae, and the approximate size. The C. hubelli species is therefore currently considered the ancestor of the great white.

Dimensions and distinguishing features

The Great White Shark is considered one of the largest shark species in the world second only to the basking shark and the whale shark. An interesting fact about great white sharks is that whether young or at maturity, females are usually larger than males.

For the female the length ranges from 4.57m to 6.1m at maturity. For the males on the other hand, the range is 3.35m to 4.1 at maturity.

Despite various claims otherwise, scientists generally agree that the maximum size of a Great White shark is 6m to 6.5m

In addition to the size, great white sharks can be distinguished from others with their Mackerel shark family features. These include the two dorsal fins, the 5 slit gills and the anal fin.

They also have eyes without nictating membranes as well as mouth slits that extend beyond the eye level.

The great white shark has a predator shark’s mouth with the tell-tale row of serrated teeth that exist behind the ordinary teeth. It also has a countershading feature that acts as a camouflage technique. Here, the top half of the body is a dark shade of grey or blue to match the sea from above while the bottom half is white to blend with the sun from below.

Finally, the great white is capable of swimming at up to 35 mph.

Life Expectancy

Nobody can be certain of the typical lifespan of a Great White Shark. Various scientific evidence suggests around 30 to 40 years, although it is not unreasonable for a large marine animal to live longer.

Dangerous to Man?

Since accurate records began in 1876, there have been an estimated 224 attacks on humans by Great White Sharks resulting in 63 fatalities (source).

According to shark attack incident reports, the great white shark is the culprit in most unprovoked attacks.

The Great White is often feared as a man eater, although the truth is that the shark confuses the victim with it’s normal prey – this is backed up by the fact that victims are typically bitten and released, not eaten.

It is usually a case of wrong time, wrong place for the victims.

The other interesting fact is that most fatalities as a result of great white shark attacks are as a result of blood loss and not actual whole consumption by the shark. This is because sharks prefer less bony prey with higher fat and protein content and usually release the humans as soon as the unfamiliar taste is detected.

Conservation Status

Vulnerable (IUCN)

Reproduction

A Great White shark is able to reproduce when grown to a length of about 3.8 meters for a male and 4.5 meters for a female. Little is known of the mating habits and rituals.

Great white sharks exhibit aplacental viviparity. This is where the female shark carries the unborn young ones and gives birth to them live but there is no placenta available for sustenance. The developing young ones feed on unfertilized eggs and smaller fetuses within the womb.

After 18 months of gestation the female gives birth to self-sufficient pups, numbering 2 to 12, that immediately swim away to start their solitary lives.

When born the offspring are about 1.5m long and perfectly capable predators.

Diet & Feeding

The great white shark is a predator that feeds on other sea animals. Younger sharks are smaller and weaker and therefore go for easier prey including fish and sting rays. Mature great whites are stronger and can go for larger prey including, turtles, sea lions, seals and even other sharks.

The great white doesn’t chew its food. Instead, it shakes its head side to side allowing the saw-like row of teeth to tear of chunks of meat from the prey which are then swallowed whole.

Did you know? A great white shark can survive on only one meal every month or two.

Distribution and Habitat

Great white sharks are adaptable and have been noted to survive in any salt water environment with temperatures ranging from 12 to 24 degrees Celsius. They are distributed worldwide with sightings everywhere from the South African shoreline to Australia’s coasts.

Life Expectancy

It is widely believed that a great white shark can live up to 70 years of age.

Other Names

White Pointer, White Death

Speed

Great white sharks have a top swimming speead of 25mph. When attacking prey a burst speed of 35mph is possible.

Weight

A Great White shark can reach a weight of around 3180kg. Females will typically weigh more than males.

Population

The solitary nature of these sharks makes it difficult to ascertain the exact world population. However, it is estimated that there are about 3500 great white sharks in the world.

This puts them on the endangered species list with different countries taking different measures to curb shark poaching.

References

  1. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_white_shark 
  2. http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/sharks/species/Greatwhite.shtml 
  3. https://www.google.com/amp/s/atlanticwhiteshark.wordpress.com/2013/04/18/8-facts-about-how-great-white-sharks-reproduce/amp/ 

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