The Great White shark, (Carcharodon carcharias), has had many names over the centuries, including White Death, Great Pointer or White shark and all for a good reason: the Great White is one of the most lethal predators on Earth. Uniformly feared by fisherman and ocean travellers alike, the Great White has long been the source of legends and myths, often described as a ‘maneater’. While science has actually disproved this theory, at least the part that people were actively hunted by the great white, the shark still proves to be widely feared.
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The Great White is known for its size, with mature sharks reaching upwards of 6.4m (21 ft) in length, with females being larger than the males, and an approximate weight limit of 3,000 kg ( 7,000 lb). Top end measurements are based off of the largest Great White ever recorded, caught off the coast of Cuba in 1945. In comparison, the Great White is considered the fourth largest shark known to us, following the megamouth shark, the basking shark and the whale shark.
The Great White is most famous for its dark to light grey upper body and all white lower half. To a seal swimming on the surface, the Great White would resemble the murky depths below it and if seen from below, the stark white belly would resemble the light from above. This colouring is known as countershading. The shark has a long pointed conical snout, similarly sized upper and lower lobes of the tail and a massive mouth filled with serrated teeth. The jaws of the sharks are lined with rows of teeth just beneath the gum, ready to grow back in place should any tooth fall out. The teeth are triangular, serrated and number around 3,000 in total.
The Great White is composed of nearly pure muscle, with very little fat. While the shark is sleek and muscular, strong enough to kill a whale as part of a pack or even kill other sharks larger than themselves, the Great White also stores fat in the liver for emergency use or for travelling long distances without eating.
One of the great assets a Great White has is the Ampullae of Lorenzini, a network of pores specialized in detecting electromagnetic waves in the ocean. Every living thing produces electromagnetic waves – short, pulsating bursts of electricity, often having to do with muscle contraction. While most animals have no knowledge of this occurring around them, almost all sharks can detect these bursts of electricity with their specialized pores. This allows them to hunt animals that they couldn’t even see and allows them to hunt effectively under any conditions. Some researchers even believe the Ampullae of the Great White is so sensitive they can even detect the heartbeat of nearby animals.
The Great White’s behaviour is not well known, but what is known is revealing about their social structure; some have been found to have bites that match other Great Whites, suggesting that a proximity warning is given with a light bite. In the South African Great Whites, size, gender and length of time in the area details the hierarchy of the shark pack. While no Great Whites have been seen fighting, it is suggested from wounds on washed up sharks that such fights might occur.
An interesting action called spy hopping is performed by the Great Shark, a rare occurrence among sharks, in which the shark actually breaks the surface of the water and looks above the ocean for prey. Some researchers have suggested that spy hopping possibly has to do with smelling for prey, as smell travels faster through air than water.
Great Whites also perform a behaviour called breaching, where the shark, usually while attacking, will charge from below the prey at up to 40kmph (25mph). This results in huge sharks breaking the surface of the water while grabbing the prey, flying up to 3 m (10 ft), above the water. It’s a truly awesome spectacle and underlines the sheer power they possess.
While the Great White is most commonly associated with being a ‘maneater’, very few, if any, incidences have been noted where a human has actually been hunted by a Great White. Quite often, the resulting bites from a Great White are just test bites, a way for the shark to figure out what the human being is. In reality, a human being is too bony for a Great White, which prefers fat, protein rich prey such as seals.
Recent research has shown that Great Whites exploit the sun during predatory approaches, positioning the sun directly behind them and using it to their advantage.
As of 2012, 272 unprovoked attacks had been recorded, with a small portion of those resulting in death, often from exsanguination.
Great White sharks are carnivorous, preying on nearly any fish in the ocean, though fat rich animals are preferred. Juvenile (before 15 years of age) sharks often hunt and eat small fish, as the cartilage in their jaws has not mineralized enough to withstand the force needed for a stronger bite. Older sharks are able to hunt larger prey, such as elephant seals, sunfish and even whales. Many juvenile Great Whites have been discovered to have inedible materials in their stomachs, including beer cans, license plates and shoes.
Great Whites are also known to scavenge food found in the ocean, consuming off the dead carcasses of whales and other animals. There have been instances of cannibalism among the Great White populations too.
Habitat & Distribution
The Great White’s distribution is widespread, being found in every ocean and sea across the world. They are most commonly found as far north as the Upper Atlantic and Pacific, just south of Arctic waters and as far south as the southern tip of Australia. The Great White is considered native to the Mediterranean states, United States, sub-Saharan coastal states, South America and the Australian states. Most sharks stay close to coastal shelves, preferring to hunt just off the coastline, though some have been detected to swim in the deep ocean.
Reproduction & Offspring
The exact reproduction process of the Great White is still very much shrouded in mystery. What is known is that sharks reach reproductive maturity at 15 years, that females are ovoviviparous, meaning they hatch their eggs internally then give birth once their pups are strong enough and that Great White pups are oophagous, meaning they eat the weaker eggs while gestating. The sharks give birth between spring and summer and often have specific breeding grounds, though where these locations are is barely known to researchers.
Great Whites have anywhere between 1-5 pups and have been theorized to take a year off between births. Pups are about 1 ft long when they are born and weigh arouund 5kg. Their jaws tend to grow strong enough to kill within their first month of life and only get stronger thereafter.
Currently there is no economic value to the Great White shark other than their jaws, teeth and fins as hunting trophies. While hunting the sharks is still seen as small in comparison to other fish, there is some concern regarding the peculiarly long breeding habits of the shark, with regard to the number of pups born, the length of time a shark waits to reach reproductive age and the time spent between breeding cycles. Due to the global rise in sport fishing the Great White, their numbers have steadily declined, though there is no exact number of population size. As of now, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, their status is currently Vulnerable.
22 Bite-sized Great White Shark Facts
- Their scientific name is ‘Carcharodon carcharias’
- A species of large lamniform shark.
- Other names include ‘White Death, Great Pointer, White Shark
- Mature Great Whites reach upwards of 21ft in length, with an approximate weight limit of 7,000lb
- The females of the species are larger than the males.
- These top end measurements are based off of the largest Great White ever recorded, caught off the coast of Cuba in 1945
- While controversy surround the accuracy of these measurements, the photo reveals just how huge this specimen was.
- The are considered the fourth largest shark known to us
- Just behind the whale shark, basking shark and megamouth shark.
- Their light grey upper body and all white lower half is known as ‘counter shading’
- From above, the Great White resembles the murky depths below, and from below, it resembles the light from the surface.
- They have triangular, serrated teeth
- They number around 3,000 in total, with multiple rows ready to replace those that are broken or fall out.
- The are composed of nearly pure muscle, with very little fat
- Like all sharks, their skeleton is made up of cartilage as opposed to bone.
- They store fat in their liver for emergency use
- For example, travelling long distances without eating.
- Their ‘Ampullae of Lorenzini’ is used to detect electromagnetic waves in the ocean
- It consists of a network of pores specialised in detecting electricity. Every living thing emits electromagnetic waves to some extent.
- They are solitary hunters
- But they are known to coexist within active hunting and breeding grounds.
- They use ‘spy hopping’ to look above the ocean for prey
- While rare, this involves the shark breaking the surface to observe above water. Researchers suggest they may also do this to smell for prey.
- Great Whites ‘breach’ when attacking prey
- They charge prey from below at up to 25mph, breaking the surface and launching up to 10ft into the air.
- As of 2012, 272 unprovoked attacks on humans have been recorded
- There is no evidence to suggest humans have been hunted by a great white. Attacks usually involve an investigatory bite, or ‘test bite’, in an attempt to figure out what the human being is.
- They are carnivorous
- Preying on nearly any fish in the ocean, seals, whale carcasses and even other sharks.
- Great Whites can be found in every ocean and sea across the world
- They often stay close to coastal shelves, preferring to hunt just off the coastline.
- The reproduction process is still shrouded in mystery
- They reach reproductive maturity at 15 years, and hatch their eggs internally, giving birth once the pups are strong enough.
- Great White pups are oophagous
- Meaning they will eat the weaker eggs while gestating
- They give birth at specific breeding grounds
- Though little is known about there these are located
- They have anywhere between 1-5 pups, around 1ft long and weighing 5kg.
- Theorised to take a year off between births.
- Great Whites exploit the sun during predatory approaches
- Positioning the sun directly behind then and using it to their advantage.
- Great Whites are currently listed as Vulnerable
- According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.
Great White Shark Fact-File
|Scientific Name||Carcharodon Carcharias|
|Top Speed||40km/h (25mph)|
|Lifespan||30-40 years (In Wild)|
|Conservation Status||Vulnerable (Threatened)|