Stay up to date with Current Events from WebLessons, updated every Monday morning. Click Here to view the archive of past articles.
Last week, on June 3rd, a group of professional fishermen caught what they suspect is a record-setting shortfin mako shark. The 1,323.5 pound, 11 feet long, 8 feet around shark was caught after an hours-long tussle off the coast of California. While they are waiting for the measurements to be verified, a controversy has surfaced: Were the fishermen right to kill the mako? Is it more valuable in scientists’ laboratories, or in the ocean?
The 1975 movie Jaws forever changed how we think of sharks. It seered upon our collective conscious images of huge mouths filled with knife-like teeth lurking beneath a picturesque ocean, and swimmers unaware that the hungry beast was swimming, approaching, just below. In the trailer to Jaws the narrator declared, ”It lives to kill. A mindless, eating machine, it will attack and devour…anything. It is as if God created the Devil and gave him jaws.” Add the pulsating, looming theme music and your heart races. Kill, mindless, eating machine, attack, devour, Devil: Who wouldn’t be scared of sharks?
That sharks have a bad rep is undeniable. That many look the part is unquestionable. But, their reputation as killing machines is undeserved. In reality, what might kill you is not likely to be a shark.
This year, before you head to the beach with your family, dispense with the shark myths. Instead, arm yourself with information about one of the coolest, oldest creatures on Earth. Instead, take extra sunscreen. That really will protect you from the most dangerous thing on the beach.
Meet the Shark—
Swimming at the top of the ocean’s food chain, for over 400 million years shark have dominated the oceans. What has made them so successful? What adaptations and anatomical features have helped them survive and thrive? Exactly who is a part of the shark family—are they all as toothy and scary as the great white shark? What are the greatest threats to their survival as a species and how endangered are they? Dive into all things shark by testing your shark knowledge with shark fact or fiction.
What makes a shark a shark? Scientists define sharks as “fish that have a cartilage skeleton, five to seven gill slits on the side of the head, and pectoral fins that are not fused to the head.” Check out a pdf of basic shark anatomy, then explore a more complete rundown of shark physical characteristics. Look more closely at the great white sharks’ anatomy and discover how its anatomical features help it maintain its place at the top of the food chain. You may have an abundance of burning questions about shark biology. The Florida Museum of Natural History’s shark biology Q and A answers them.
Not the Only Shark in the Sea—
Jaws’ great white shark may be the most famous type of shark, but with approximately 400 species, it is not the only shark in the sea. To learn who’s who in the shark family, view a shark classification tree.
Sharks are a diverse group. Play with the Shark-O-Matic to see the range of sharks. The dwarf lantern shark is only 6.7 inches long and lives in the deepest parts of the ocean. The whale shark is the largest fish in the ocean. It can be 39 feet long, does not use its teeth, and eats mostly plankton and krill, a far cry from its infamous meat-eating cousin the great white shark. Meet a few members of this diverse family at National Geographic Kids: the bull shark, the hammerhead shark, the sand tiger shark, and the great white shark. The site shares facts and photos, sounds and videos, and maps; visit each tab. Visit ARKive to read descriptions and see photos, videos, and a barometer of the endangered status for the whale shark (the largest fish), the short fin mako (the type of shark caught last week), and the much smaller spiny dogfish shark.
Going, Going, Extinct—
The great white shark, the basking shark, the whale shark and others are now endangered. Four sites examine sharks’ plunging numbers. Begin at PBS’ Vanishing Sharks interactive. Move the lever to see how populations of four species of shark—the great white shark, the thresher, the smooth hammerhead, and the oceanic whitetip—have changed over time. The BBC site asks ‘What are the threats?’ and highlights some of the sharks at the greatest risk for disappearing completely. Take a guess—how many people are attacked each year by shark? For a peek at the answer, view the infograhic, Shark Attack. In reality, people have very little to fear from the ‘eating machine’, but sharks should steer clear of us.
Rob Stewart is a biologist and award-winning marine photographer. In 2006, Stewart released the documentary Sharkwater, which he hoped would rehabilitate sharks’ reputation. Learn more about Stewart and what draws him to study and photograph sharks. Watch the beginning of the film through 3:28, and then 4:26 through 8:07. Stewart’s research took him to the Galapagos Islands. Find out what Stewart discovered there and how it changed him and his film; watch 11:25 to 15:55. Advance to 23:35 to 26:00 and meet veteran shark hunter, Vic Bishop, and hear Stewart’s response.
In some cultures, sharks are prized for their fins. And so people practice finning—cutting off a shark’s prominent dorsal fin and leaving the shark to die. Watch one fin-al excerpt of Sharkwater to learn more about two threats to sharks—illegal fishing and finning (32:43 to 36:49).
One Last Bit of Information—
If you can handle more shark facts, visit Top 100 Shark Facts. Click ‘view as one page’ on the right under the photograph and then scroll through a mouthful of shark information. Catch PBS’ shark Q and A. (Do not miss the green ‘Continue’ link at the bottom left of the page.) What do you find most interesting, and most surprising about sharks? Return to shark fact or fiction. Revise your answers before you peek at the answer key. How did you do? Has your opinion of shark changed?