Yes, Shark Week Is Back, but Don’t Panic

Gavin Naylor

 

Opinion:

 

This is an excerpt from an article originally published in The Conversation. Read the rest of the article here.

 

Sharks elicit outsized fear, even though the risk of a shark bite is infinitesimally small. As a marine biologist and director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, I oversee the International Shark Attack File – a global record of reported shark bites that has been maintained continuously since 1958.

 

We are careful to emphasize how rare shark bites are: You are 30 times more likely to be struck by lightning than be bitten by a shark. You are more likely to die while taking a selfie, or be bitten by a New Yorker. In anticipation of the anxiety that’s typically generated by the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming, here are a few things about sharks that are often overlooked.

 

A big, diverse family

 

Not all sharks are the same. Only a dozen or so of the roughly 520 shark species pose any risk to people. Even the three species that account for almost all shark bite fatalities – the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) and bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) – are behaviorally and evolutionarily very different from one another.

 

The tiger shark and bull shark are genetically as different from each other as a dog is from a rabbit. And both of these species are about as different from a white shark as a dog is from a kangaroo. The evolutionary lineages leading to the two groups split 170 million years ago, during the age of dinosaurs and before the origin of birds, and 110 million years before the origin of primates.

 

Yet many people assume all sharks are alike and equally likely to bite humans. Consider the term “shark attack,” which is scientifically equivalent to “mammal attack.” Nobody would equate dog bites with hamster bites, but this is exactly what we do when it comes to sharks.

 

So, when a reporter calls me about a fatality caused by a white shark off Cape Cod and asks my advice for beachgoers in North Carolina, it’s essentially like asking, “A man was killed by a dog on Cape Cod. What precautions should people take when dealing with kangaroos in North Carolina?”

 

 

 

 

Know your species

Understanding local species’ behavior and life habits is one of the best ways to stay safe. For example, almost all shark bites that occur off Cape Cod are by white sharks, which are a large, primarily cold-water species that spend most of their time in isolation feeding on fishes. But they also aggregate near seal colonies that provide a reliable food source at certain times of the year.

 

Shark bites in the Carolinas are by warm-water species like bull sharks, tiger sharks and blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus). Each species is associated with particular habitats and dietary preferences.

 

Blacktips, which we suspect are responsible for most relatively minor bites on humans in the southeastern United States, feed on schooling bait fishes like menhaden. In contrast, bull sharks are equally at home in fresh water and salt water, and are often found near estuaries. Their bites are more severe than those of blacktips, as they are larger, more powerful, bolder and more tenacious. Several fatalities have been ascribed to bull sharks.

 

Tiger sharks are also large, and are responsible for a significant fraction of fatalities, particularly off the coast of volcanic islands like Hawaii and Reunion. They are tropical animals that often venture into shallow water frequented by swimmers and surfers.

 

Author Bio:

Gavin Naylor is a marine biologist and director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, University of Florida.

 

This is an excerpt from an article originally published in The Conversation. Read the rest of the article here.

 

Highbrow Magazine

 

Image Sources:

 

Kelvin Gorospe (Flickr – Creative Commons)

 

Brian Skerry, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Publicdomainfiles.com)

 

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