Creature Feature: Oceanic Whitetip

oceanic-whitetip-shark- Credit Copyright Brian Skerry

For the month of February, we will highlight some of the most dangerous sharks. Now before you start screaming and crying for your mama, understand that this is a surprisingly small list of sharks! No one at MSI (or pretty much any other aquarium) will tell you that sharks in general are man-eaters and are probably going to eat you. THEY’RE NOT! That is not to say that there are some sharks who merit slightly more cautious behavior, should you venture into the ocean.  There are over 365 species of sharks in the world and only a handful could be dangerous if provoked and if other factors are involved. As they say, knowledge is power, so we’re going to pump some informational iron! Number four on the list of the most dangerous sharks is the Oceanic Whitetip (Carcharhinus longimanus).

These sharks live in warm open waters (0-500ft deep).  They have a broad body and wide fins that are (as you may have deduced) tipped white. Their upper teeth are wide and serrated while their lower teeth are thinner and pointed, only becoming serrated on the edges toward the tip. This along with their massive jaw strength allows them to hold their prey so it cannot escape once bitten. Oceanic Whitetips’ feeding strategy is opportunistic. Opportunistic feeders pretty much eat whatever is in front of them, no matter the size or shape. Scientists and divers have observed them darting through schools of fish with their mouths open as a heedless tuna swims inside.

The biggest reason that these sharks are considered dangerous is the legendary “feeding frenzy”. Oceanic Whitetips are mostly solitary sharks – until there is prey and the frenzy begins. If you think about the open ocean and the lack of organisms that travel through that space, you need to eat whatever comes along. If cooperating with fellow predators can help you get some dinner, then it is your most advantageous strategy. Throughout history these sharks have been known to be lurk around shipwrecks waiting to feed. Once they begin feeding, they will be aggressive and persistent, not backing away (like some other sharks) for their food.

If that sounds intimidating, perhaps we can look at it a different way. We, as humans, hunt sharks for many different reasons. We derive parts of the liver for vitamins, the dry the skin for leather, the meat for consumption.  You may be familiar with sharkfin soup, which has been outlawed in many regions all over the world. Whitetip fins are considered extremely valuable because of how large they are. On the flip side, no shark includes humans as part of its typical diet. Humans kill over 65 million sharks a year (give or take a few millions) while sharks kill an average of 5 humans per year. So as we talk about dangerous sharks this month, think about how they might see us if they were in our shoes.  Our swim fins? You get the idea.

References:

Edited by KC O’Shea
Photography by: Brian Skerry
http://www.fws.gov/international/cites/cop16/oceanic-whitetip-shark.html
http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/gallery/descript/oceanicwt/oceanicwt.html
http://www.planetdeadly.com/animals/dangerous-sharks
http://marinebio.org/species.asp?id=89

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