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What is a Great White Shark?

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  • Written By: N. Freim
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 30 April 2018
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The great white shark is one of the largest predatory sharks living today and is considered an endangered species. It is carnivorous, but contrary to popular opinion, does not seek out humans to attack. Its fearsome reputation came about largely in the twentieth century, with events such as the New Jersey shark attack in 1916 and the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in 1945, in which many of the crew were eaten by sharks over a period of days. Although it shares many characteristics with other sharks, the great white is something of a mystery to scientists since no one has been able to keep one alive in captivity for very long.

The coloring of a great white shark is useful for camouflage: the white belly is hard to see from beneath, and the grey or brown back makes it difficult to see from the surface. At maturity, the shark is usually about 13 to 17 feet (4 to 5 meters) long and weighs more than 1 ton (about 900 kilograms). Great whites can grow up to 20 feet (6.1 meters) in length, but there is controversy about how large the shark can actually get. Claims have been made about great whites measuring up to 36 feet (11 meters), but modern scientists dispute the accuracy of these measurements.

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Perhaps the best known feature of the shark is its jaws. Its Latin name, carcharodon carcharias, means “ragged tooth.” Several rows of serrated teeth grow in its gums; new ones pop up to replace any that are lost. A great white shark does not chew its food, but bites down and tears off chunks of its prey. Its bite can produce more than one ton (about 900 kilograms) of pressure per square inch (6.5 square centimeters).

Though most sharks are cold blooded, the great white is warm blooded, meaning it can live in slightly colder waters. It is often seen along coasts such as Australia, South Africa, and the Americas. Some great whites migrate in the winter to an area in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii, now called White Shark Cafe, but the purpose of the journey is still unclear to scientists who study the animals.

Its presence along coasts is linked to its preferred diet of seals and sea lions, though it will eat fish, dolphins, whales, and other sharks as well. The great white shark swims up on its prey from below, biting to incapacitate the creature. This surge from below can propel the shark out of the water, as seen with white sharks off South Africa. The shark may retreat to let the prey bleed and weaken before returning to eat, or the shark may pull the creature down until it stops struggling.

The great white is one of the four shark types that are responsible for most shark attacks, but very few of all shark attacks are fatal — less than five each year. Despite being known as “man-eaters,” great whites often bite simply to determine whether an object is food. Some scientists speculate that the silhouette of surfers on their boards with legs and arms paddling resembles the shape of seals, and this is why some surfers are bitten.

The twentieth century gave rise to the great white shark’s bad reputation. With events such such as the shark attacks on the New Jersey coast in 1916, the U.S.S. Indianapolis incident in 1945, and the so-called “Summer of the Shark” in 2001, the public perception and dislike of sharks grew steadily over the century. The great white is often the shark associated with attacks, even though it is not always the culprit. Depictions in popular books and film help fuel the false notion that sharks will deliberately go after humans.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature currently lists the great white shark as endangered. The sharks have never been successfully bred in captivity or even maintained in an aquarium for more than six months. While some sharks are killed accidentally, a large number are hunted for their fins, which are used to make shark’s fin soup, an expensive delicacy. Since great whites are apex predators, the shrinking numbers could have a ripple effect on a number of ecosystems in the sea.

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