Great white sharks
Found in every ocean in the world, great white sharks are the largest predatory fish on Earth and sit at the top of the marine food chain. They get their name from the pearly white colour of their underbellies, though their upper bodies are a slate grey colour that helps them blend in with the rocky sea floor.
While culturally famous thanks to the Jaws franchise, there’s a lot about this species that we don’t know, including the size of their home range, where they mate, or where females give birth.
What we do know is they breathe through gills and have a highly sensitive sense of smell, able to detect a drop of blood from half a kilometre away. They are not cold-blooded; instead, great white sharks are endothermic, meaning they have a special regulatory system that keeps their body temperature slightly higher than the water around them. This allows them to live in different oceans with different climates.
When hunting, great white sharks are stealthy and position themselves underneath their prey before swimming at high speeds towards it. If a shark is close to the surface, it may breach to grab the prey in its mouth.
Great white sharks are migratory. In the Pacific Ocean, great whites have been seen migrating between Mexico and Hawaii, and it’s possible that great whites living in other oceans migrate even further.
As a top predator, the great white shark plays a very important role in maintaining balance in its ecosystem. If sharks were to be removed from their habitat, prey species’ numbers would rise and competition for food would increase to an unsustainable level.
What is a great white shark's scientific name?
The great white shark’s scientific name is Carcharodon carcharias. The genus name Carcharodon comes from two Greek words, karcharos (meaning sharpen) and odous (meaning teeth).
Are great white sharks endangered?
The IUCN lists the great white shark as vulnerable and its population trend as decreasing. Their numbers and ranges are very difficult to track, but we do know that they are threatened by poaching and fishing practices.
Where do great white sharks live?
Great white sharks can be found in every ocean, but they stay away from the colder waters of Antarctica and the Arctic. They are most frequently found in temperate waters where the temperature is easy to adapt to and their favourite food is abundant.
Illegal hunting and fishing practices
Humans pose the biggest threat to great white sharks due to illegal hunting and fishing practices. In some countries, they are hunted for food as their large size provides lots of meat, while in others, they are hunted for sport.
Finning and bycatch
Another problem is finning—the act of removing the shark’s fins and discarding the “less valuable” body. These fins are used in traditional Chinese medicine and eaten in a delicacy called shark fin soup.
On top of fisherman who purposefully hunt and fin sharks, great whites are also unintentional caught by other fisherman as bycatch. Previously, these fisherman would just let the sharks go, but now it is more profitable for them to cut off their fins and discard their bodies.
In some parts of the world, their teeth are also prized as jewellery and their jaws can sell for thousands of dollars.
IFAW works with member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to put limitations on the trade of threatened shark species. We prioritise the seizure of illegal shark products and the improvement of fishing practices to reduce shark mortality.
How big is a great white shark?
An adult great white shark grows to an average of four and a half metres in length, but some can reach more than six metres. They can weigh up to 2,500 kilograms. They are born at around a metre in length and adapt their diet to their size as they grow.
How many teeth does a great white shark have?
Great whites have around 300 triangular and serrated teeth that are arranged in up to seven rows in their mouths. They use their teeth to rip food into bite-size chunks and swallow them whole, so their teeth are never used for chewing.
How long do great white sharks live?
Not a lot is known about the great white shark’s average lifespan, but scientists have identified individuals that lived into their 70s. As far as we know, great whites reach sexual maturity after 10 years for males and 12 to 18 years for females.
What do great white sharks eat?
Throughout their lives, great white sharks adapt their diets both to their size and their location. Young sharks eat big fish, like tuna and smaller shark species. When they are fully grown, they prefer marine mammals, like seals and sea lions. They also eat crustaceans, molluscs, and sea birds, and they have been known to feed off of whale carcasses. When a shark successfully catches prey, the meal can often sustain it for a couple of months.
How fast can a great white shark swim?
The average swimming speed for a great white shark is around 25 kilometres per hour, but it is possible for them to reach speeds of up to 50 kilometres per hour, thanks to their torpedo-shaped bodies and powerful tails.
Do great white sharks lay eggs?
Great white sharks don’t lay eggs. Instead, they are ovoviviparous, which means that the shark grows in an egg which is then hatched inside the mother. The mother then gives birth.
While still in the womb, it isn’t uncommon for a hatched shark to eat the other undeveloped eggs and even their unborn siblings. Then, when they are born, there’s a chance they themselves may be eaten by their mother.
Female great white sharks don’t nurture their pups. As soon as they are born, the pups swim off and begin their own lives. They are capable of surviving on their own partly because they are born at one to one and a half meters in length.
Are great white sharks dangerous?
Shark attacks are very rare. In fact, more people die from lightning strikes each year than from great white sharks. When a human is attacked, it is usually because the shark is curious and takes a “test bite.” When they realise that they’re not interested in eating the human, they often swim away.
While great white sharks aren’t hostile towards humans and they don’t consider us food, they are still dangerous to be in close contact with. Even a test bite can be very painful.
How many great white sharks are there?
Since great white sharks are so widespread, it’s very hard to estimate their numbers, and there is no available data on their global numbers. Some estimates put the global population at fewer than 3,500 individuals, while a report in 2017 estimated 5,460 just in eastern Australasia.
How can you help?
Great white sharks are vulnerable due to threats of illegal hunting and fishing, as well as finning and bycatch. IFAW works to put limitations on the trade of threatened shark species.