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Basic Facts About Sharks
There are more than 465 known species of sharks living in our oceans today. Sharks are an apex predator at or near the top of their marine food chains, and they regulate the populations of species below them. Research has shown that massive depletion of sharks has cascading effects throughout the ocean’s ecosystems.
© Ridlon Kiphart
Sharks belong to a family of fish that have skeletons made of cartilage, a tissue more flexible and lighter than bone. They breathe through a series of five to seven gill slits located on either side of their bodies. All sharks have multiple rows of teeth, and while they lose teeth on a regular basis, new teeth continue to grow in and replace those they lose.
Shark ‘skin’ is made up of a series of scales that act as an outer skeleton for easy movement and for saving energy in the water. The upper side of a shark is generally dark to blend in with the water from above and their undersides are white or lighter colored to blend in with the lighter surface of the sea from below. This helps to camouflage them from predators and prey.
Most species of shark eat things like fish, crustaceans, mollusks, plankton, krill, marine mammals and other sharks. Sharks also have a very acute sense of smell that allows them to detect blood in the water from miles away.
It is difficult to estimate population numbers since there are many different species spanning a large geographic area. However, overall shark numbers are on the decline due to the many threats they face in the wild.
Did You Know?
Sharks predate the dinosaurs by 200 million years. The largest known species of shark, C. megalodon, might have reached a maximum length of 67 feet.
Habitat & Range
Sharks have adapted to living in a wide range of aquatic habitats at various temperatures. While some species inhabit shallow, coastal regions, others live in deep waters, on the ocean floor and in the open ocean. Some species, like the bull shark, are even known to swim in salt, fresh and brackish waters.
Most sharks are especially active in the evening and night when they hunt. Some sharks migrate over great distances to feed and breed. This can take them over entire ocean basins. While some shark species are solitary, others display social behavior at various levels. Hammerhead sharks, for instance, school during mating season around seamounts and islands.
Some shark species, like the great white shark, attack and surprise their prey, usually seals and sea lions, from below. Species that dwell on the ocean floor have developed the ability to bottom-feed. Others attack schooling fish in a feeding frenzy, while large sharks like the whale and basking sharks filter feed by swimming through the ocean with their mouths open wide, filtering large quantities of plankton and krill.
Sharks mature slowly, and reach reproductive age anywhere from 12 to 15 years. This, combined with the fact that many species only give birth to one or two pups at a time, means that sharks have great difficulty recovering after their populations have declined.
Soon after birth, sharks pups swim away to fend for themselves. They are born with fully-fledged sets of teeth and are able to feed and live on their own.
More on Sharks: Shark Species Profiles »
Size: The spined pygmy shark, a deep-sea shark, is one of the smallest at only about 7-8 inches, while the whale shark is the largest shark, and fish, at about 50 feet in length.
Lifespan: Although lifespan varies by shark species, most sharks are long-lived and generally tend to live for 20-30 years. Species like the spiny dogfish and the whale shark are believed to live for over 100 years!
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