In spite of its infamously glorified reputation, the Great White Shark is not an indiscriminate, merciless murderer. With that being said, it is also arguably the ocean's most feared predator and one of nature's most proficient and skilled killers. With an arsenal of evolutionary attributes at its disposal, this predatory beast wields unbelievable abilities that should commend more awe and respect than fear - especially given the vast infrequency of attacks on humans, a species with virtually no appetizing appeal given its bony structure and a general lack of flesh. If the Great White Shark expends the energy and effort to hunt, it will almost always aim for fatty fishes, cetaceans, seals, or sea lions. And while piercing onyx eyes may haunt humans, a sense of sight serves no significant purpose in seeking prey. This predator possesses other devastating devices for hunting, utilizing traits and tactics that most animals are incapable of ever acquiring.
Rimming the ridge of the conical snout, beneath the borderline between a dark gray top and a white underside, hundreds of miniscule pores provide the Great White with its ability to sense the electromagnetic field of surrounding waters. From the swimming of a tuna to the heartbeat of an elephant seal, even the slightest movements and actions generate an electrical pulse - impossible to detect for most creatures, but easily received and interpreted by Great Whites and other selective species of fish possessing the complex series of tiny organs known as ampullae of Lorenzini. When an electrical pulse infiltrates the nasal pores, the current travels through jelly-filled canals, alerting the shark to a nearby presence. Of all species with these electroreceptors, the Great White Shark is the most sensitive, able to sense .0005 microvolts - the equivalent to one-billionth of a volt.
When the sun first breaches the horizon in the early hours of the morning, Great Whites capitalize on optimal hunting conditions. During this limited window of opportunity when underwater visibility is at its poorest, potential prey swimming close to the surface fail to notice the shark's dark, mottled back in the dimmed depths below, and deep sea divers looking up struggle to distinguish the white underbelly's silhouette against the sunlight. This aquatic camouflage proves invaluable, significantly bolstering the success rate for kills. Few victims ever see their assailant attacking before it is too late.
Along the coastlines of all four of Earth's oceans, throughout the Mediterranean Sea, and around the northern perimeter of the Gulf of Mexico, Great Whites troll tropical and temperate waters at dawn, preparing to strike. Each species of prey presents a different challenge. Approaching dolphins and porpoises from the side or rear is crucial to rendering their echolocation useless. Tuna, rays, and other large fish are simple to chase down, considering the shark's ability to burst at speeds exceeding 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour). Few displays in all of nature are as terrifying and spectacular, however, as when a Great White Shark takes down a seal or sea lion.
Innocently floating a few kilometers off the southern California coastline, a solitary sea lion never sees its killer coming. There is no warning - no triangular dorsal fin penetrating the ocean's surface, signaling a shark circling below. One moment the Pacific is placid. A moment later, a Great White Shark erupts from the ocean, completely coming out of the water, its teeth turning red with the blood of the wounded sea lion clenched between powerful jaws. Twisting through the air, the massive maritime monster crashes back into the water headfirst, smacking its tail against the surface before reentering the world of water once again. Swift and precise, this initial attack lasts no more than two seconds. When the subsequent splashing subsides a few seconds later, any evidence of a disturbance disappears to those above sea level.
Back beneath the surface, the slaughter continues. Incapable of devouring its prey in a single leaping strike, the Great White uses its sharply serrated teeth to tear into the sea lion's fleshy hindquarters. While the shark can rip off up to 14 kilograms (31 pounds) of flesh in just one bite, plenty more remains to be consumed of the 300-kilogram (660-pound) pinniped. Fatally injured from the first bite, the sea lion flounders helplessly as its killer patiently waits for the creature to finish bleeding to death. At that point, the remaining carcass is consumed.
Generally solo swimmers, companions will quickly congregate in the presence of a potential meal. Great Whites' noses are magnetized to blood, with such acutely designed nasal sacs that the sharks can detect a single drop in 100 liters of water. Individuals within these groups - usually found surrounding a carcass with plentiful meat - do not solely focus on feasting, but will communicate with each other through swimming patterns, jaw gaping, and splash fights. While these interactions have been observed, no particular behaviors are known to specifically coincide with any sort of courtship or mating rituals.
For a species with an average lifespan of 30 years, Great White Sharks reach sexual maturity at the significantly age: 15 years. At this time, females are impregnated with between 2 and 10 eggs inside of their uteri. Several months later these eggs will hatch, but the newly hatched pups will continue to grow and develop inside of their mother. While adults rarely, if ever, attack one another, cannibalism within the womb occurs often, and only the strongest pups will be birthed into the open ocean after a yearlong gestation. Instantly after birth, the meter-long (3 feet) newborns abandon their mother forever. Childhood is spent parentless and companionless, devouring squids and rays while growing into a ferocious predator.
Over the past century, fishing for Great Whites - whose coveted teeth, jaws, and flesh yield sizable monetary rewards for those able to snare a shark - has significantly decimated the global population. While the practice is not prevalent, any fishing proves detrimental. Considering the large discrepancy in years between birth and sexual maturity, the small litter size, and the lengthy reproductive cycle, recovery for this endangered species is slow. Only with tightly enforced conservational measures, which fortunately exist in many countries, will this misunderstood cartilaginous fish survive for centuries to come.
A Great White Shark begins a stealth attack on a juvenile northern elephant seal in the waters of the Continental Shelf adjacent to the Farallon Islands, west of San Francisco. Bull-kelp plants are shown on the sea bed.
Great White, White Pointer, White Shark, White Death
6 meters (20 feet)
2,300 kilograms (5,000 pounds)
30-40 years, possibly longer
Coastal waters in all four oceans, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico
Fish, rays, dolphins, porpoises, seals, sea lions, and whale carcasses
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The age of a Great White Shark can be determined by the number of rings on its vertebra.
The Great White Shark is the only surviving species in the genus, Carcharodon.
Great White Sharks are capable of internally regulating their own body temperature, relying on rete mirabile - a complex, closely clustered web of arteries and veins - to make numerous organs up to 14-degrees Celsius (25 Fahrenheit) warmer than the surrounding water.
In some regions, Great Whites are not the apex predator; Orcas have been known to attack and prey on these sharks, driving away entire populations in some cases.