How Great White Sharks Work

Great White Shark Anatomy

Any discussion of great white anatomy should start with the infamous jaws that gave Peter Benchley's tome a title. In fact, the great white shark's scientific name is Carcharodon carcharias, which means "ragged tooth" in Latin and shows that this shark's teeth have always been an important trait.

The great white has about 3,000 triangular teeth. When the shark moves in to bite its prey, its jaws extend forward as its head recedes back. The lower jaw strikes first, stabbing the prey with serrated blades. Then the upper jaw descends, and the teeth fit together perfectly so that whatever's inside is not going anywhere anytime soon. This whole process, from the head lifting to dropping back in place, takes about 0.99 seconds [source: Tricas].


The great white doesn't chew its food; instead, it holds the prey locked in those teeth and shakes its head from side to side, tearing off bits of flesh and blubber. The strength of the bite is estimated at 1 ton per square inch, with the great white able to consume about 20 to 30 pounds (9.1 to 13.6 kilograms) of flesh with one chomp. The great white's bite is about twice as strong as that of a lion [source: Parker].

To look at the great white's snout, you wouldn't think such impressive teeth were waiting -- the snout is fairly short and cone-shaped. The rest of the great white's body is torpedo-shaped and ends with a symmetrical caudal fin, or tail.

The great white takes its name from its white belly, but it's not white all over. On top, it's gray, or sometimes brown. This coloring aids the great white as it stalks its prey. From below, the white underside blends in with the sky above, while from the top of the water, the shark is indistinguishable from the ocean floor below. Most great whites also have a black spot near their pectoral fin.

The great white is the largest predatory fish in the sea, a fact that no doubt helps to drive humans' fear of being eaten by one. The maximum length for a great white appears to be about 20 feet (6 meters). While the great white isn't the biggest shark (an honor that belongs to the whale shark), the only sharks that are bigger eat plankton and small schools of fish. The great white tips the scales at 4,500 pounds (2,041 kilograms).

One thing that sets the great white apart from a lot of other sharks and other fish is that it's warm-bl­ooded. The blood vessels are aligned concurrently, with the vessels that run to the exterior of the body next to the ones that come back from outside. As the warm blood from the inside passes the cooler blood that is coming back from the exterior, it transfers its heat to the adjoining vessel, allowing the great white to keep its interior organs warm [source: Dingerkus]. This movement allows the great white shark to maintain a body temperature as much as 25 degrees Fahrenheit (14 degrees Celsius) warmer than the water [source: Martin].

Being warm-blooded means they can live in slightly colder waters than other sharks, but it also means they need to eat more. Find out what waters the great white swims in on the next page.