How Sharks Work

Unprovoked shark attacks are extremely rare, but it pays to know about these much-feared ocean dwellers.
Unprovoked shark attacks are extremely rare, but it pays to know about these much-feared ocean dwellers.
Barcroft/Getty Images

Great White Sharks can be found in many parts of the world. See pictures of sharks.

Every summer millions of overworked minions all over the world take time off from the job, pack up the car and hit the beach for a nice, relaxing family vacation. A little saltwater, sunshine and sand in the toes are a healthy remedy for a stressed out and overextended workforce. ­Parents kick back while the kids build sand castles, toss the Frisbee and take a swim in the ocean. Singles roam the beach in search of love. College kids party like it's 1999. It's all sun and fun until the lifeguard blows the whistle and yells the word that no beach comber ever wants to hear -- SHARK!


You might think that the likelihood of getting attacked by a shark is pretty great if you watch the news. The fact is, unprovoked shark attacks are extremely rare -- they just make for engrossing headlines. You're more likely to die from tangling with a bee, wasp or snake than a shark. You're also 30 times more likely to die from a lightning strike than a shark attack [source: International Shark Attack File]. But since filmmaker Steven Spielberg brought the movie "Jaws" to the big screen in 1975, beach-loving vacationers have had the possibility of a shark attack firmly lodged in the backs of their minds.

­There's no doubt that sharks are one of the most feared creatures on Earth. But they are also one of the most sophisticated and enduring. The oldest shark fossils date from more than 300 million years ago, before the age of the dinosaurs. And a few existing shark species, such as the hornshark, have kept the same basic physical characteristics for more than 150 million years. Scientists attribute this remarkable longevity to the shark's superior physiological developments. Sharks are outfitted with several special characteristics that make them highly effective, both as hunters and survivors.

Sharks are a vital part of the ocean's ecosystem and sadly, overfishing has left many species of shark in danger of extinction. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists three kinds of thresher sharks as vulnerable worldwide. The mako shark has been moved from near threatened to vulnerable and the scalloped hammerhead went from near threatened to endangered. These are only a few species that could be in trouble if fishing practices aren't more heavily regulated.


Shark Anatomy

When people think of sharks, they generally imagine an animal like the one in this picture. The tall dorsal fin, torpedo-shaped body and giant teeth of this great white shark are fam­iliar to most everybody. But there are actually more than 400 different shark species alive today, and they vary considerably in size and appearance. In fact, roughly 50 percent of shark species are less than a meter long. So what makes a shark a shark?

­Sharks, along with rays and chimeras, are distinguished from other fish primarily by their ­body composition. Most other fish have skeletons made of bone, just like mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. Sharks and rays, on the other hand, have skeletons made entirely of cartilage, the same flexible material in your nose and ears. Cartilage is sturdy like bone, but it has a much lower density. This material keeps sharks relatively lightweight, so they don't sink in the ocean and they don't need an air bladder like other fish.


Sharks also have a very unique skin texture. They don't have the large, prominent scales found in bony fish. Instead they're covered with smaller, tooth-like scales called denticles. These tough, protective denticles are aligned so that they channel water over the shark's body, minimizing drag due to friction.

Like bony fish, sharks breathe by extracting dissolved oxygen from water. The water enters the mouth, passes through the gills and is expelled through gill slits behind the head. In bony fish, these slits are covered, but in most sharks you can see them clearly. As the water flows through the gill opening, it passes tiny gill filaments. These filaments are covered with microscopic blood vessel capillaries, which have a lower oxygen content than the water around them. This imbalance causes oxygen in the water to diffuse into the shark's bloodstream, where it is distributed throughout the body.

Some sharks have a gill pump, a set of muscles that suck in water and push it past the gills. This works something like our lungs -- the shark can continuously gather oxygen while it is in a still position. Most sharks also extract oxygen using ram ventilation, passing water over the gills by moving forward. Some highly-active sharks depend on ram ventilation almost entirely, which means they stay in motion most of the time!

Sharks also differ from most bony fish in the way they move. In the next section, we'll find out how sharks swim so quickly and gracefully through the ocean.


Shark Movement

Is this reef shark swimming for its life?
Is this reef shark swimming for its life?
Jeff Hunter/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Most bony fish have a special swim bladder that helps them move around in the water. When the fish takes in oxygen, it can release some of the gas into the bladder. This increases the fish's buoyancy, so it rises through the water. To sink down to the bottom, the fish squeezes some of the gas out of the bladder, decreasing its buoyancy. In this way, a fish is something like a blimp or hot air balloon that uses the upward lift of atmospheric buoyancy to change altitude.

A shark is more like an airplane. It doesn't have a swim bladder, so it uses its forward movement to control vertical position. The tail is like the shark's propeller -- the shark swings it back and forth to move forward. In an airplane, this forward movement pushes air around the wings. In a shark, this forward movement pushes water around the fins. In both cases, this movement of matter creates lift -- the fluid is different, but the principle is exactly the same.


Sharks have two sets of paired fins on the sides of their body, in the same general position as the main wings and horizontal tail wings of a plane. The shark can position these fins at different angles, changing the path of the water moving around them. When the shark tilts a fin up, the water flows so there is greater pressure below the fin than above it. This creates upward lift. When the shark tilts the fin down, there is greater pressure above the fin than below it. This pushes the shark downward.

The shark also has one or two vertical dorsal fins on its back and sometimes a vertical anal fin on its underside. These fins work like the vertical stabilizer wing on an airplane. They help the shark keep its balance as it moves through the water and they can be moved from side to side to turn the shark left and right.

This fin arrangement gives sharks amazing maneuverability. They can cruise at high speeds, stop suddenly and make sharp turns in every direction. This is one of the reasons they are such effective hunters. They move more quickly and with greater control than any of their prey -- most of the time, a shark's prey doesn't even know what hit it.

Of course, before a shark can swoop in for the kill, it has to locate­ its prey. In the next couple sections, we'll examine the finely tuned senses that help sharks locate and track their food.

Shark Senses

When it comes to sharks, the nose knows. Here you can see the two slits that are the shark's nares, or nasal cavities, located on the white underside.
When it comes to sharks, the nose knows. Here you can see the two slits that are the shark's nares, or nasal cavities, located on the white underside.
Norbert Wu/Science Faction/­Getty Images

One of the main reasons sharks are such effective predators is their keenly attuned senses. Initially, scientists thought of sharks as giant swimming noses. When researchers plugged the nasal openings in captive sharks, the sharks had trouble locating their prey. This seemed to demonstrate that the shark's other senses weren't as developed as the sense of smell. Further research demonstrated that sharks actually have several acute senses, but that they depend on all of them working together. When you take one away, it significantly hinders the shark's hunting ability.

The shark's nose is definitely one of its most impressive (and prominent) features. As the shark moves, water flows through two forward facing nostrils, positioned along the sides of the snout. The water enters the nasal passage and moves past folds of skin covered with sensory cells. In some sharks, these sensitive cells can detect even the slightest traces of blood in the water. A great white shark, for example, would be able to detect a single drop of blood in an Olympic-size pool. Most sharks can detect blood and animal odors from many miles away.


Another amazing thing about a shark's sense of smell is that it's directional. The twin nasal cavities act something like your two ears: Smell coming from the left of the shark will arrive at the left cavity just before it arrives at the right cavity. In this way, a shark can figure out where a smell is coming from and head in that direction.

Sharks also have a very acute sense of hearing. Research suggests they can hear low pitch sounds well below the range of human hearing. Sharks may track sounds over many miles, listening specifically for distress sounds from wounded prey.

Hammerhead sharks are characterized by their wide head structure. The sharks eyes and nostrils are positioned at the ends of these protrusions.
Hammerhead sharks are characterized by their wide head structure. The sharks eyes and nostrils are positioned at the ends of these protrusions.
Jeff Rotman/Getty Images

In sharks, eyesight varies from species to species. Some less active sharks that stay near the water's surface don't have particularly acute eyesight, while sharks that stay at the bottom of the ocean have very large eyes that let them see in near darkness. Most all sharks have a fairly wide field of view, however, since their eyes are positioned on each side of the head. The most extreme example of this is the hammerhead, whose eyes actually protrude out from the head.

­Many shark species also rely heavily on their sense of taste. Before these sharks eat something, they will give it a "test bite" first. The sensitive taste buds clustered in the mouth analyze the potential meal to see if it's palatable. Sharks will often reject prey that is outside their ordinary diet (such as human beings), after this first bite.

In addition to these familiar senses, sharks also possess some senses we don't fully understand.

The ampullae of Lorenzini give the shark electroreception. The ampullae consist of small clusters of electrically sensitive receptor cells positioned under the skin in the shark's head. These cells are connected to pores on the skin's surface via small jelly-filled tubes. Scientists still don't yet understand everything about these ampullary organs, but they do know the sensors let sharks "see" the weak electrical fields generated by living organisms. The range of electrosense seems to be fairly limited -- a few feet in front of the shark's nose -- but this is enough to seek out fish and other prey hiding on the ocean floor.

Water flows through the lateral line systems. Vibrations in the water stimulate sensory cells in the main tube, alerting the shark to prey and predators.
Water flows through the lateral line systems. Vibrations in the water stimulate sensory cells in the main tube, alerting the shark to prey and predators.

Another unique sense organ is the shark's lateral line. The lateral line is basically a set of tubes just under the shark's skin. The two main tubes run on both sides of the body, from the shark's head all the way to its tail. Water flows into these main tubes through pores on the skin's surface. The insides of the main tubes are lined with hair-like protrusions, which are connected to sensory cells. When something comes near the shark, the water running through the lateral line moves back and forth. This stimulates the sensory cells, alerting the shark to any potential prey or predators in the area.

By themselves, none of a shark's sense organs would be adequate for effective hunting. But the combination of all these senses make the shark an incomparable predator. The success of sharks is due largely to these physiological advancements -- they are superbly built to find food. They are also quite good at catching food, of course, as we'll see in the next section.

Shark Teeth

Great whites attack their prey with a mouthful of razor sharp, serrated triangular teeth.
Great whites attack their prey with a mouthful of razor sharp, serrated triangular teeth.
Stephen Frink /Getty Images

A shark's only real weapon is its mouth. Like its fins and sense organs, the shark's mouth is a highly effective physiological adaptation, perfectly suited to its job. There are two elements that make the mouth so effective: the teeth and the jaws.

Shark teeth are something like the teeth of land predators. They have very sharp points that will cut into meat. Sharks are exclusively carnivores, so for the most part they don't need any grinders for chewing plant matter. Some bottom dwelling sharks do have special grinding teeth for cracking shells open, but more active sharks have teeth suited only for eating flesh. There are a wide variety of shark teeth, just as there are a wide variety of sharks. These teeth can be divided into two general categories.


Many shark species, such as the goblin shark and sand tiger, have very long, thin teeth. This structure is well suited for catching small fish. The shark kills the fish immediately, by piercing it with a single bite. Then it swallows the fish whole.

Sharks that go after larger prey need a different strategy and a different sort of tooth. They tear into their prey several times, biting off large pieces of flesh. Sharks in this group, which includes the infamous great white shark, have wide serrated teeth. These teeth act something like a hunting knife -- they cut easily through tough flesh and bone. Many sharks have combinations of long pointed teeth and wider serrated teeth, so they can hold their prey in place while they cut into it.

Shark teeth have the same basic consistency as our teeth, but they don't sit in the mouth in the same way. Our teeth rest in sockets, and aren't replaced after childhood. Shark teeth are attached to the jaw by soft tissue, and they fall out all the time. This is crucial to the shark's effectiveness -- worn or broken teeth are continually replaced by new, sharper teeth. In some sharks, such as the great white, these teeth are arranged in several rows.

Sharks have a very unique jaw structure, which makes their mouths especially effective weapons. In most animals, the lower jaw moves freely but the upper jaw is firmly attached to the skull. In sharks, the upper jaw rests below the skull, but can be detached when the shark attacks its prey. This lets the shark thrust its entire mouth forward to grab onto its prey. Jaw mobility varies among different species, but all modern sharks have this ability to some degree.

In the next section, we'll find out what science knows about the life of a shark.

Daily Life of a Shark

In recent years, scientists have uncovered a lot of new information about shark physiology, but the day-to-day life of sharks remains fairly mysterious. Most shark species are very difficult to study because they travel quickly over long distances, sometimes deep in the sea. They live in a world that is largely inaccessible to humans.

We do know that sharks are solitary animals, for the most part. They typically live and hunt by themselves, joining up with other sharks only in certain circumstances, such as mating. Some sharks will form schools on occasion, however. Researchers aren't really sure why this occurs because sharks don't really need protection from predators and they don't feed in schools. At this point, it's still unclear why sharks behave this way. In any case, the occurrence is very rare. Most of the time, sharks swim alone.


When they hunt, most sharks rely on the element of surprise in some way. In some camouflaged bottom-dwelling sharks, such as the various wobbegong species, this is a passive exercise. The shark blends in with the ocean floor, waiting for its prey. When a fish gets close enough, the shark opens its mouth wide and swallows the fish whole.

In active hunters, the element of surprise works a little bit differently. Great whites and other sharks that hunt bigger animals proceed very cautiously when approaching their prey. Once it has found a potential meal, the shark will circle at some distance, sizing up the situation. When it is ready, the shark moves in quickly, landing a good bite before the animal knows what's happening. Often, this first attack is sufficient to bring down the prey. Researchers have observed great whites behaving this way when hunting sea lions -- they will take one good bite, and then wait for the sea lion to die from blood loss. This sort of hunting takes a lot of energy out of a shark, so these species usually won't feed more than a couple times a week. Sharks that feed on smaller prey typically eat a few times every day.

The schooling tendencies of scalloped hammerheads make them unique among sharks.
The schooling tendencies of scalloped hammerheads make them unique among sharks.
Larry Gatz/Getty Images

On rare occasions, active sharks will cooperate in a hunt. Researchers have observed this phenomenon primarily in sevengill sharks. When these sharks hunt large fur seals, they rely on strength in numbers -- one large fur seal is too big for a single shark to take down itself. The sharks form a wide ring around a single seal, and slowly move in. When they get close enough, one shark will suddenly attack, and the rest will follow. This sort of behavior sometimes occurs in other shark species, but it is extremely rare.

­Scientists also know that migration plays a big part in the lives of most shark species. The main reason most sharks migrate is that their food migrates. Different marine animals gather in certain areas throughout the year, for breeding, to lay eggs and other reasons. Sharks remember these annual patterns and return to these areas every year to take advantage of the population boom. Sharks will also remember human activity when it involves food supplies. Many species gather around fishing boats, for example, because they know fishermen might discard extra bait and small catches.

Despite what many of us think, sharks do face certain threats underwater. In the next section, we'll find out what a shark should be afraid of.

Threats to Sharks

A fisherman cleans a small hammerhead shark at Boca del Asadero, state of Nayarit, Mexico.
A fisherman cleans a small hammerhead shark at Boca del Asadero, state of Nayarit, Mexico.
Luis Acosta/Getty Images

­Despite their superior physiology and hunting skills, many shark species are now threatened with extinction due to human fishing. The main threats to sharks are over-fishing and accidental bycatch. In many parts of the world, sharks are in very high demand, for their meat, skin and cartilage, which is used in several medicines. These shark products sell at very high prices, making them an attractive catch to fishermen.

­Sharks mate only rarely and have a relatively small number of shark pups at a time. Consequently, they can't replenish their population quickly. Sharks also have fairly long lifespans -- on average, sharks live 25 to 30 years. According to Andy Dehart, Director of Biological Programs at the National Aquarium and shark expert for Discovery Communications, sharks can live up to 60 years, with the spiny dogfish reaching 70 to 100 years. If left alone, a female will mate many times in its life. With this reproductive pattern, the death of every single shark obviously has a significant effect on the shark population­. ­


Over-fishing is actually a problem for both sharks and humans. If humans kill too many sharks in a given amount of time, the population will dw­indle and they won't be able to catch many sharks in the future. The only way to maintain profitable shark fishing over time is to allow sharks to continue to reproduce, which means decreasing shark fishing significantly. Sharks are also killed accidentally, primarily by long lines used to catch other fish. Researchers suggest we must ban certain fishing methods, or some shark species will die out at some point in the near future.

­­One major obstacle to conservation efforts is our ignorance about sharks. We still don't fully understand their behavior, their breeding habits or their migration patterns. For most shark species, we don't even have an idea of their population size. This makes it very difficult to organize effective conservation methods since we can't accurately calculate safe fishing restrictions.

Sharks have persevered for hundreds of millions of years, while thousands of other animals have come and gone. When you consider this incredible history, and the unique physiological characteristics found in sharks, it's clear that it would be a great tragedy to lose any shark species. They are among the most remarkable animals on earth, and there is still so much we don't know about them.

For a summary of what you've read in this article, check out the next page.

Shark Summary

Great white shark: maneater or misunderstood?
Great white shark: maneater or misunderstood?
Mike Parry/Minden Pictures/­Getty Images

­Sharks have been around for hundreds of millions of years and are among the deadliest creatures on Earth. Sharks can unhinge their jaws and destroy large prey with their rows of razor sharp teeth. But even though sharks' jaws and teeth make them fierce predators, it's their sensory perception that truly makes them great hunters. Sharks can track large prey by following their low-pitch sounds, plus they can smell blood in the water from miles away. Sharks also have two extra senses which allow them to sense electrical fields and vibrations in the water. So, even the slightest movement in the water can trigger a shark's predatory instincts.

Once a shark has sensed the presence of prey, it uses its incredibly strong tail to propel itself through the water. Sharks deftly maneuver through the water by adjusting the angle of their fins. Sharks don't have a swim bladder like most other fish, so they regulate their vertical position by moving forward. Another unique aspect of the shark's body is that its skeleton is composed of cartilage rather than bone.


Sharks tend to be loners, swimming and hunting by themselves. They occasionally travel in schools, but typically hunt alone. They sometimes follow the annual migration patterns of fish and even fishing boats in search of an easy meal, but sharks manage to find food in all circumstances. When food is scarce, they use camouflage along with their incredible speed to surprise their prey, making an escape almost impossible. The element of surprise is important to sharks because it is advantageous for them to kill their prey in one bite, which conserves their much-needed energy.

Sharks are rarely the prey of other aquatic predators, but they encounter numerous problems with fisherman, particularly in Asia, where shark is considered a delicacy. Over-fishing and accidental bycatch have dramatically reduced shark populations around the world. Those factors, along with sharks' infrequent mating habits and small litter size, are putting the shark population in jeopardy.

Interesting Shark Facts

  1. The earliest known shark fossils date from over 300 million years ago, which makes them older than the dinosaurs.
  1. Shark species vary in length from a few inches to 45 feet.
  1. A great white shark could detect a single drop of blood in an Olympic-size swimming pool.
  1. Between 75 and 100 shark attacks are reported each year, but less than 20 result in human death.
  1. Some sharks can live to reach the ripe old age of 100! However, most sharks live about 25 to 30 years. Sadly, the shark's average lifespan is decreasing as a result of over-fishing and accidental bycatch.

For lots more information on sharks and related topics, check out the links on the next page.