The great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is a species of very large mackerel shark in the family Lamnidae. It is the largest surviving species of macropredatory fish and among the largest surviving fish species. They are found in oceanic waters around the world, typically near the surface. Great whites are also called white pointers; the name comes from their distinctively white underbelly, which is visible when the fish charges toward the surface after prey. This species is believed to have originated roughly 16 million years ago, during the Miocene period, and survives in the modern day. It is the only known survivor of the genus Carcharodon.
Great white sharks had no natural predators other than the orca until the summer of 2016, when a de-extinct Mosasaurus maximus was released into the Gulf of Fernandez; it has since been sighted in oceans around the globe. This reptile is large enough to prey on juvenile and adult great whites. However, as there is only one mosasaur, it is not considered to be a threat to the great white shark population on more than a local level.
The great white is the largest predatory fish to survive until the modern day, and is outclassed in size only by three other cartilaginous fish: the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), and the giant oceanic manta ray (Manta birostris), all of which are planktivorous. An adult female great white can reach lengths of up to 6.1 meters (20 feet), though lengths of 4.6 to 4.9 meters (15 to 16 feet) are average. Larger sizes have been reported, but not confirmed. The weight of an average-sized adult female is between 680 and 1,110 kilograms (1,500 to 2,480 pounds). Males grow to a smaller size, reaching lengths of 3.4 to 4.0 meters (11 to 13 feet) and weighing between 522 and 771 kilograms (1,151 and 1,700 pounds). Some other macropredatory sharks, such as the tiger shark and Greenland shark, grow to similar lengths but are leaner and lighter.
From snout to tail, this animal is streamlined and evolved for speed; its head is roughly bullet-shaped. The jaws are quite large, filled with triangular serrated teeth on the upper and lower jaws. These teeth are designed to tear off pieces of flesh from prey items. It is common for the shark to lose a tooth during predatory activity, but it has many rows of teeth which will move forward throughout its life. Therefore, if a tooth is lost, a replacement is never far behind it. Also on the face are most of its sensory organs, including the ampullae of Lorenzini. These are electroreceptor organs forming a network of pores, serving to detect electric currents in the surrounding waters. White sharks also have an astounding sense of smell, their nostrils being located underneath the snout. The eyes, like those of most mackerel sharks, are proportionally large; in the great white, the iris of the eye is very deep blue rather than truly black. When attacking prey, the eyes roll back in the head for protection. This is because, unlike many other sharks, it has no membranes to protect its eyes from damage.
As with all its relatives, the great white has five gill slits on either side of its torso. Water passes through its mouth and out the gill slits, and oxygen is extracted here. There are two triangular dorsal fins on the shark’s upper body, a large one behind the head and a much smaller one closer to the tail. These provide the animal stability, ensuring it does not roll over unintentionally while swimming. On the ventral part of the body behind the head are a pair of long, pointed pectoral fins, which provide dynamic lift while swimming through the water. The smaller pelvic fins also assist with lift to some degree, and the small anal fin (also located on the underside, near the tail) assists with balance like the dorsal fins.
The caudal fin, or tail fin, is technically heterocercal: the vertebrae support the upper lobe of the tail. However, like many mackerel sharks, the great white’s tail fin is nearly symmetrical, with the lower lobe being roughly as long as the upper. This gives it a crescent-shaped appearance. To swim, the shark swishes its tail side to side, propelling it forward. It may reach speeds of fifty-six kilometers per hour (thirty-five miles per hour).
Coloration of the great white is defined by its very distinct countershading. This is common in many marine animals, but is especially prominent in this fish. The animal’s lower body is light white, while its dorsal side is gray. Some are darker in color than others, appearing almost black, while others show a lighter stony gray color. On some occasions, the dorsal side appears blue or brown rather than gray.
When they are born, baby great whites are about 1.2 meters (3.9 feet) long already. This large size helps them survive by giving them an advantage over some of their competitors. They resemble smaller, slightly thinner versions of adults.
The growth rate of the great white is roughly twenty-five centimeters (9.8 inches) per year, and they reach sexual maturity at a very slow rate (up to 26 years for males, 33 years for females). Resilient to the ravages of age, great whites have a remarkable ability to heal and evade disease and the other pitfalls of senescence. If they avoid serious injury, they may live for 70 years or more, making them one of the longest-lived cartilaginous fish.
The great white shark exhibits prominent sexual dimorphism, with the female growing noticeably larger than the male as described above. Females age at a slower rate as well, and due to being of larger size they are typically stronger. Other than size, males can be told apart by the presence of claspers; these are his intromittent organs. One is used for the mating process while the other is used to grip the female. The female shark does not have these organs.
The great white is a cosmopolitan species, found in virtually all the world’s oceans (it cannot tolerate freshwater environments, so it is never found in rivers or lakes). Because it feeds on small to moderately-sized marine mammals, it chooses to live in coastal waters and typically remains near the surface, but it is capable of diving up to 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) underwater.
It prefers water temperatures between 12 and 24 degrees Celsius (54 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit), a fairly broad range. Despite being poikilothermic like most fish, it has adaptations to ensure that its body temperature remains high enough to allow it to survive. They congregate especially in areas with warm anticyclonic eddies, and near rocky coasts where seals and sea lions live. However, they do not often remain in once place for long; great whites are highly migratory and may cross vast distances of ocean.
Great whites are found in all the world’s major oceans, but their largest concentrations are off the Pacific coasts of the Americas and Japan, around South Africa, throughout Oceania, and in the Mediterranean Sea. They are believed to have feeding grounds far out in the Pacific Ocean, and are known to favor warm-water currents in the Atlantic Ocean. While they do not normally live in shallow water, they can be found near coasts and offshore islands where their prey lives. For example, the Costa Rican island of Isla Nublar is known to have a great white shark population in its waters. Apparently the sharks near Isla Nublar are somewhat aggressive and will bite or harass kayaks. Human activities on Isla Nublar, particularly the introduction of de-extinct predator animals between the 1980s and 2010s, probably influenced the great white population by way of impacting their prey’s populations.
The global population of great whites was classified as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It faces numerous ecological threats that reduce its population. Efforts were taken by Masrani Global Corporation between 2007 and 2015 to rebuild the great white population using the same cloning technology that made Jurassic World possible. During this period of time, the animal was cloned in an offshore mariculture facility at such high rates that it was no longer considered threatened (meaning it was classified as Near Threatened or possibly even Least Concern). Not all the cloned sharks were intended for the wild; up to six a day were fed to the Mosasaurus in Jurassic World, often having been killed beforehand. However, this was not considered a hindrance to the regrowth of the population.
Following the 2015 incident in Jurassic World, the corporation faced the greatest financial crisis in its history. Furthermore, its environmentalist CEO Simon Masrani had died during the incident, and with him the corporation’s commitment to animal rights and environmental welfare. It is most likely that the mariculture facility was shut down to save costs, as it was no longer needed with Jurassic World closed. The great white population may have slipped back into threatened status since 2015. The now-feral Mosasaurus, which escaped captivity in 2016, is known to feed on them.
Great whites are native to most of the world’s oceans and therefore cannot be artificially introduced to places that they do not already live. Attempts to keep them in captivity have largely failed. The closest thing to “introduced” great whites are those bred by Masrani Global Corporation in the Gulf of Fernandez mariculture facility, which operated during the 2010s. Many of the sharks were, rather than being released into the wild, transported to Isla Nublar where they were used as food for one of the Jurassic World attractions. Living sharks in the Jurassic World Lagoon are unconfirmed, and in any case would not have remained living for long.
After the closure of Jurassic World in late 2015, and the concurrent death of Masrani Global’s environmentalist CEO Simon Masrani, the breeding of great whites in the Gulf of Fernandez likely ceased.
Behavior and Ecology
Like most sharks, the great white is crepuscular. This means that it is primarily active at dawn and dusk. However, their activity patterns vary around the world; some are more active during the day when their prey is awake, while others remain deep underwater during daylight and rise toward the surface at night to prey on unsuspecting animals. The great white does not truly sleep, only entering into periods of relative inactivity.
Diet and Feeding Behavior
The great white shark is the largest surviving macropredatory fish, though a few other sharks do reach similar size. Larger fish consist only of filter-feeders such as the whale shark and manta ray. This animal relies on camouflage to hunt, the dark color of its back blending in with the dark water below while the light color of its belly matches the sunlight from above. To locate prey, they use their finely-tuned senses; they can easily detect traces of mammalian or fish blood in water, feel the movements of a thrashing injured animal, and sense the electric impulses given off by living things. Its electroreceptive sense is so acute that it can detect a heartbeat of an animal remaining entirely still.
Great whites often hunt at the water’s surface, rushing at prey from underneath. Once they are close, they will bite down with their jaws, using the sharp, serrated teeth to tear prey apart. Differing strategies are needed to take out different types of prey; elephant seals, for example, are immobilized with a bite to the hindquarters and left to bleed to death. In some parts of the world where smaller seals are their primary prey, great whites may breach out of the water while ramming the prey item.
Juveniles feed mainly on fish, as they are not large enough to kill marine mammals yet. Their diet includes both bony and cartilaginous fish, including other sharks. Once they reach about thirteen feet long, they will begin to feed on mammals; older sharks may target small whales and dolphins by approaching from behind, above, or below to avoid being detected by echolocation. Larger whales are too big to attack and kill, but their carcasses can feed a group of great white sharks for weeks.
On occasion, great whites will eat other kinds of animals such as seabirds and turtles. They prefer energy-rich fatty foods, and if they bite off a piece of subpar meat they may regurgitate it in order to choose a better piece that provides more energy.
Little is currently understood about the social behaviors of great white sharks. They were historically thought of as solitary creatures, but their preferred environment means that they are often seen in proximity to each other. The population off of South Africa has a distinct social hierarchy that may exist in other parts of the world. In this hierarchy, females are dominant over males, larger sharks over smaller ones, and long-term residents over newcomers. Dominance may be established through non-lethal biting and other aggressive displays, and disputes are resolved with similar rituals.
In some shark populations, groups of two to six fish will form clans similar to wolf packs with a distinct leader and ranking system. Differing clans are known to interact non-violently, establishing rank between the social groups through visual displays.
They typically hunt alone, even if they live in an area of higher population density. On the other hand, they may gather in numbers around a whale carcass to engage in feeding frenzies. During these aggressive meals, the sharks may accidentally bite each other, but this does not usually result in serious damage to either one.
Due to their nature as migratory creatures across vast tracts of ocean, great white shark reproduction is not well known. Male sharks are smaller than females, but use organs called claspers to mate with the females.
Gestation lasts 11 months, almost an entire year. The great white is ovoviviparous; its eggs hatch inside the uterus, where the young continue developing until they are born. While inside their mother, they eat undeveloped eggs she produces. This process is called oophagy. At one month of development, the shark’s jaws are already forming. Delivery occurs during spring and summer, with very large females giving birth to as many as fourteen young. Newborn sharks are called pups, and are functionally independent as soon as they are born. The mother will not provide them with any form of parental care.
Its reproductive rate is fairly low. Coupled with its slow maturation speed and long gestation period, this means that the great white population grows slowly and is vulnerable to environmental threats.
As with nearly all fish, it cannot make any vocal sounds, so its methods of communication are purely visual and pheromonal. They may try to locate other creatures by spyhopping, poking their heads out of the water to see and smell more clearly. Other methods of communication include movements of the body to indicate aggression or curiosity, as well as physical touch. A shark may establish dominance by biting the fins or body of another member of its species.
The great white shark is an apex predator, preyed upon only occasionally by the killer whale (Orcinus orca). It is vital in the regulation of smaller marine mammal populations, particularly pinnipeds, which could otherwise become overpopulated. They also feed on cetaceans, many types of fish, sea otters, birds, and sea turtles.
However, the great white can subsist on a large meal for a considerable amount of time. It may go for longer periods without eating, and during this time it is more curious about its environment than aggressive. White sharks are known to find unfamiliar objects and nudge or lightly bite them, using their sensitive snouts and mouths to learn. It is not uncommon for them to do this to a living creature, which may result in injury to the smaller animal if the shark bites harder than necessary while investigating.
Since 2016, the great white shark has gained a new predator in the form of a single very large female Mosasaurus maximus, which had been extinct since the end of the Cretaceous period until the early 2000s. As there is only one animal as of 2018, however, it does not pose a major threat to the global population of great whites.
Since it is the largest macropredatory fish alive in the modern day, the great white has long inspired fear and awe in humans and is frequently featured in art depicting the raw power of the ocean. One of its less common names, “white death,” references its lethal predatory strength and directly connects it to the unforgiving danger of the sea. In reality, of course, the great white is just as much at the mercy of the ocean as humans are, but its supreme adaptation to its environment makes it a clear symbol of just how out of their element humans are in deep water.
The 1974 marine thriller novel Jaws by Peter Benchley, and its 1975 film adaptation by Steven Spielberg, made the great white notorious by establishing it as a massive danger to humans. Since then a wide range of (mostly less worthy) shark horror films have bombarded the public to the point at which a moviegoer unfamiliar with shark biology might assume these animals feed almost exclusively on humans. The human, in reality, does not constitute a major part of any shark’s diet owing to the fact that humans do not inhabit the ocean. As a matter of fact, the human is a very poor food item for this fish’s high energy needs; it requires lots of healthy fats in its diet, and even the most overweight of humans are too low in nutrients to make a decent meal for a great white.
While large aquariums have attempted to keep great whites in captivity, the wide-ranging migratory patterns of this fish make it virtually impossible to maintain, and all have died after fairly short periods of time. The only organization known to have ever successfully bred the great white was Masrani Global Corporation, using cloning and accelerated growth methods developed by International Genetic Technologies. Without these advanced scientific methods, such a mariculture program would probably have been impossible. Specifics of the program are undisclosed at this time, but most of the sharks were released into the wild while a portion were used as fodder for Jurassic World. The sharks appear to have been raised to the subadult stage before being either released or prepared for the park.
Captive great whites usually refuse food and bump into the walls of their tanks; they do not encounter walls in the wild and so have difficulty navigating inside an enclosure. They often die in less than a month. The longest any great white has ever lived in captivity was 198 days, a juvenile female kept in a one million U.S. gallon tank at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. This aquarium has kept a small number of juvenile sharks in captivity over the years, and has had more success at getting them to eat and survive; sharks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium have survived longer than any others in captivity. The last shark kept at this aquarium was released into the wild in the summer of 2011, and since all the necessary biological data has been gathered, the captive white shark program is done. All three were eventually released back into the Pacific Ocean, though the third and final shark died a short time after its release.
With the closure of Jurassic World in late 2015, there is no longer a demand for great white shark breeding, and so the Masrani Global mariculture facility has probably closed down.
Great white sharks are one of the best-studied shark species. Their impressive size and power makes them charismatic and popular with the public, so shark research often gets more attention than other regions of marine biology. Furthermore, since great whites are among the species capable of threatening humans, a better scientific understanding of their behavior patterns is helpful to beach communities and so sometimes better-funded.
Along with the trove of biological information about shark evolution and physiology gathered from great white research, this fish has often benefited the medical field. While oils from sharks have long been used as dietary supplements, ongoing studies have demonstrated that the great white shark in particular has a remarkable resilience against diseases and other health issues related to age. While they are not immune to cancers, they are affected at much lower rates than many animal species. Further research into the sharks’ physiology and genetics may enable scientists to better the quality of life in aging humans as well, unearthing novel cellular mechanisms that stave off the deleterious effects of old age and reducing the chances of cancer-causing mutations. Studies performed by the University of Miami in South Africa in 2012 have also discovered that the great white shark is highly resistant to heavy metal poisoning, which is facilitated by an unknown feature of the shark’s immune system. This also has the potential to greatly benefit human and other animal health, especially in an increasingly metal-polluted ecosystem.
In some countries, the continued existence of great white sharks is up for debate. Humans enjoy using oceanic beaches for recreation, which puts them in the same environment as this predatory fish. It primarily feeds on seals and other blubbery marine mammals, but may mistake humans for its food sources and bite them. Even if it does not eat its victim, these bites can cause permanent damage and death. To combat this, some countries such as Australia and South Africa have used shark-culling practices, intentionally slaughtering large numbers of sharks every year. The great white has a very slow growth rate, so if its population is impacted, it will take a long time to recover.
Shark culling is largely unnecessary as there are only a small number of shark bites per year. It also kills many marine animals that do not often threaten humans, such as dolphins and game fish; this can have negative effects on the economy since it kills off large fish that the seafood industry relies on. There is not even a guarantee that the bait lines and nets set up will kill the specific sharks that have bitten people. Scientists almost universally condemn the practice of shark culling, calling it inhumane and ineffective. It is most commonly used in Australia, an island nation with a productive marine ecosystem and many sharks. Because of its large shark population, bites are more likely here than anywhere else in the world. During times when bites occur more frequently than normal, panic tends to spread through the country and leads to shark-culling practices being implemented.
In other countries such as Brazil, shark relocation is more common than culling. Other practices are being developed such as acoustic and electric deterrents which drive sharks away from popular beaches. Policies to protect great whites and other sharks from damaging fishing practices are also being introduced in several countries around the world; their greatest threat is shark finning, which is increasingly frowned upon. As of 2013, twenty-seven countries and the European Union had banned shark finning, and the sale of shark fins (and some other shark products) is illegal in various regions. However, shark finning in international waters remains unregulated.
The great white’s overall slow life cycle makes it easily affected by changes in its environment. Since the 1970s, its population appears to have declined. Many governments around the world now consider it a protected species, restricting trade in its body parts or byproducts. Despite this, it and other shark species are still killed for their fins in some parts of the world, as the fins are considered a delicacy. The animal is typically left alive when the fins are removed, and is tossed back into the ocean where it slowly bleeds to death. In other cases, the shark’s byproducts are used in the pharmaceutical industry. Teeth which it loses throughout its life may be collected by humans as souvenirs, but this is not harmful to the shark because it continues to develop new teeth.
In the early 2000s and 2010s, Masrani Global Corporation raised a de-extinct Mosasaurus maximus which had been cloned from Cretaceous DNA. As the marine reptile grew in size, concern was raised over what to feed it. Rather than raise vast quantities of feeder fish as InGen had done in the 1990s for a different mosasaur species, they opted to use the cloning and accelerated-growth techniques developed over the past three decades to rebuild the population of an existing species instead. The great white shark was mass-produced in an offshore mariculture facility run by Masrani Global Corporation, raising its population to the point where it was no longer considered threatened with extinction. Protections were lifted, permitting Masrani Global to ship the rapidly maturing sharks to Isla Nublar where InGen could use them to feed the mosasaur up to twelve times a day. This developed from simply a way to provide for the animal’s needs into a massive spectacle for tourists, as the animal was trained to jump for its food whenever it was presented. The mosasaur was bred in 2006 or 2007, and was fed daily until December 22, 2015; as many as 4,380 sharks would have been fed to it during an average 365-day year.
It is currently unknown whether, following the closure of Jurassic World and presumably the closure of the mariculture operation, the great white shark is protected again as it was prior to its use in Jurassic World as a fodder animal. If not, its population has probably suffered dramatically as companies can trade in its byproducts freely despite it no longer being bred in large numbers with artificially fast growth rates.
The great white shark is a major tourist draw in the marine environment, and divers may use shark cages to observe them safely from up close. Diving in open water with large sharks is mostly discouraged, but is still legal in some areas while permits are required in others. In addition to bringing in money for ecotourism, great whites also benefit coastal communities by keeping seal populations in check; this relieves predatory pressure on the smaller fish that humans eat, which the seals feed on but large sharks do not. With a healthy population of sharks, the rest of the coastal ecosystem remains in balance, benefiting the humans who live there as well.
Every time you enter the ocean, you must acknowledge the possibility of encountering marine life. Great white sharks are responsible for more bites on humans than any other shark species because they hunt in coastal waters and are often found in areas with low visibility. They prey on blubbery animals such as seals, sea lions, and porpoises, and do not prefer bony, muscular animals such as humans; still, they may bite a human while searching for food, which can be devastating. A great white shark will usually release a human after the preliminary bite reveals that it is not what the shark is interested in eating, so you are unlikely to lose major organs, but blood loss can be fatal especially if the bite occurs far from shore.
To avoid attracting a hunting shark’s attention, do not swim in areas where they are known to hunt; if seals live in the ocean nearby it is best not to swim there. Silty waters where visibility is low are dangerous, as you will probably not see the animals in the surrounding sea and they will have only a vague idea of what you are. A shark that can sense you but not see you is more likely to bite to identify you. Swim only during daylight hours, avoiding dawn and dusk; many great white populations hunt at twilight or at night. Do not go in the ocean at all if you are bleeding. You should not be doing this anyway; get your wound treated.
Should you spot a shark in the water near you, remain calm, especially if it approaches you. If you see it coming, it is probably curious rather than hungry. A hunting shark will attack by ambush. Stay still and quietly move back toward shore. Splashing around will make you look like an injured animal, which would be an easy meal. Be prepared for contact at any time as well. Sharks do not have hands, so they learn about their surroundings by bumping things with their snouts. A nudge from the shark may be an attempt to learn more about you. Should the shark bite you, it can be temporarily fended off with a sharp jab to its eyes or a punch to its nose, but this is not a long-term solution; unless you can get back to shore fairly quickly, you will only have succeeded in irritating it.
Since people began recording shark attacks, great whites have been implicated in 272 bites, at least 74 of which were fatal. A common factor in the survival rate of attacks is whether or not the victim was alone. Solitary divers who are bitten are frequently partially eaten, dying from blood loss or organ removal. Divers who swim with a partner or in groups are able to be rescued by their companions and brought to safety, a benefit that the shark’s usual prey does not often get. Humans are out of their element underwater, and regardless of whether or not you expect to encounter sharks, you should never swim alone. Having other people around will help keep an eye out for danger, discourage animals from approaching you, and ensure that you have help if you become injured.
Behind the Scenes
The idea of the great white shark being cloned and artificially accelerated to mature sizes was proposed by Jurassic World film director Colin Trevorrow in response to criticism from environmentalists regarding the depiction of the Mosasaurus eating a dead great white shark. He claims that this idea had been present from the beginning as a part of the Jurassic World operation, but it was not brought up until criticisms were raised.