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What is a Shark?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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Sharks are a group of carnivorous ocean going fish with 368 different species in a total of 30 families. Some species of shark, such as the great white, are infamous among humans because they have been involved in attacks resulting in severe injury and sometimes death. In general, however, sharks are shy fish, who will not attack unless provoked.

Sharks have been around since prehistoric times, with fossils indicating that sharks have maintained their basic shape and evolutionary adaptations for millions of years. The fish is simple, efficient, and relatively intelligent, with evidence suggesting that sharks can acquire skills on par with many land animals. Some sharks are endangered due to heavy human trade in their fins, including many of the large species of shark.

Sharks range in size from the pygmy shark, which is seven inches (18 centimeters) long, to the whale shark, which can reach 50 feet (15 meters) in length. Most sharks have gray upper bodies and pale lower bodies for camouflage purposes. Sharks have several other characteristics which distinguish them from most fish, beginning with their skeleton, which is formed from cartilage rather than bone. This makes sharks stronger and more flexible that many fish species.

Sharks also have rough, sand-papery skin which can be quite painful to the touch. In addition, shark teeth will grow back if dislodged, guaranteeing the fish a formidable life-long dentition. Many sharks have slightly serrated teeth as well. Sharks have multiple gills on each side, with some species having as many as eight, while most range between five and six.

Most sharks have streamlined bodies designed for moving efficiently through the water. Many species have a projecting dorsal fin, and all have split caudal or rear fins. The shark can move very rapidly in search of prey, and depending on the size of the fish, sharks eat small food, plankton, shellfish, and crustaceans.

Sharks can be found all over the world, inhabiting temperate waters as well as tropical, with some species favoring shallow water. Shallow water species can pose a risk to humans, as the sharks will feel threatened by swimmers, surfers, and the like, and may attack if they feel cornered, or if they mistake the human for prey. Swimmers should avoid areas known to harbor sharks, as well as being aware of their environment. If attacked, biologists recommend that victims fight back in every way possible.

Shark meat is consumed by many cultures, although the rising levels of mercury found in shark meat make this consumption inadvisable. The fins of the shark are highly prized, leading to a global threat to shark species.

Frequently Asked Questions

What exactly is a shark?

A shark is a type of fish known for its cartilaginous skeleton, which is lighter and more flexible than bone. Sharks are distinguished by their streamlined bodies, multiple gill slits, and often sharp teeth. They are apex predators in marine ecosystems and play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of marine life.

How many species of sharks are there?

There are over 500 known species of sharks, ranging from the small dwarf lanternshark to the massive whale shark. According to the World Wildlife Fund, sharks have adapted to inhabit a wide range of marine environments, including deep-sea, open ocean, and coral reefs.

What do sharks eat?

Sharks have varied diets depending on their species. Some are carnivorous and prey on fish, seals, and even other sharks, while the largest shark, the whale shark, feeds on plankton through filter-feeding. Their feeding habits are essential for keeping prey populations healthy and in check, as noted by marine biologists.

How do sharks reproduce?

Shark reproduction varies by species, with some laying eggs (oviparous) and others giving live birth (viviparous). Some sharks, like the hammerhead, practice a method called ovoviviparity, where eggs hatch inside the female and the young are born live. This reproductive diversity contributes to their adaptability in different marine environments.

Are sharks dangerous to humans?

While sharks are often portrayed as dangerous to humans, attacks are extremely rare. The International Shark Attack File reports that the annual average of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide is only around 80, with a fraction being fatal. Most sharks have no interest in humans and prefer their natural prey.

What is the biggest threat to sharks?

The biggest threat to sharks is human activity, including overfishing, habitat destruction, and the demand for shark fins. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has assessed that a quarter of shark and ray species are threatened with extinction, highlighting the need for conservation efforts to protect these vital marine predators.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Fiorite — On Dec 20, 2010

@ Parmnparsley- I took the submarine tour on Maui and saw a group of reef sharks. They were darting and swarming around in the water near the edge of the reef. I was glad that I was on the dry side of the glass.

By parmnparsley — On Dec 19, 2010

@ Malena- A shiver is one word used to describe a group of sharks. Groupings of sharks can also be referred to as a gam, pod, school, herd or a few others that I can't think of at the moment. It can be a somewhat frightening and awe inspiring thing to see a large school of sharks.

I have only seen a school of sharks once, and it was a school of hammerhead passing below our boat near the reefs of Hawaii's big island. All I could make out were the silhouettes of about 15 or 20 hammerheads against the ocean bottom. They swam probably 30 feet below us. We were fishing for octopus, but after seeing that we stuck to the boat and moved on to the next spot. I know that they would have likely left us alone, but it is still a little nerve wracking to be in the water when there are that many sharks swimming the area. It was a cool sight though.

By malena — On Dec 26, 2007

A group of sharks is called a shiver.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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