The Jaws franchise has shaped the popular perception of sharks as huge, bloodthirsty beasts that exist to ruin beach vacations. However, that plot line is based more on fantasy than fact. More than 400 identified shark species roam the global seas, and a majority of them prefer to keep a safe distance from humans. In fact, the deeper you dive into the vast shark catalog, the more you realize how strange and downright quirky many of these animals are.
To glimpse at the amazing variety of the world's fiercest fish, check out these 10 sharks of various shapes, sizes and bizarre habits.
10. Whale Sharks:
From their name, you may have already guessed that whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are pretty big creatures. Indeed, they rank as the largest shark species, weighing in at an estimated 60 tons (54,400 kilograms) and growing longer than 60 feet (18 meters). That enormous size — three times that of the average shark — also makes the whale shark the largest fish in the ocean.
Such an enormous shark may send shivers down your spine, but these fish are actually gentle giants. Although their mouths are packed with 300 rows of stubby teeth on the top and bottom, whale sharks aren't going after big kills. Instead, these filter feeders dine on microscopic plankton siphoned from the water. Thanks to their nonthreatening eating habits, eco-tourists and adventurers can swim alongside whale sharks safely.
9. Nurse Sharks:
Nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) acquired their odd moniker from sheer mispronunciation. According to HowStuffWorks.com writer Molly Edmonds, Middle English speakers began referring to the fish as "huss" sharks, which gradually morphed into "nuss." From there, "nuss" evolved into "nurse."
Behaviorally, nurse sharks are also a little strange. Remarkably lazy, these 7- to 9-foot (2.1- to 2.7-meter) sharks lead a highly sedentary life, refusing to migrate in colder months and maintaining a limited diet. Unlike other shark species that must move in order to breathe, nurse sharks have even gotten around that bit of physical activity: Their respiratory systems are adapted to let them breathe while motionless.
8. Megamouth Sharks:
It wasn't until 1976 that the megamouth shark finally revealed itself to the world. Since then, the Florida Museum of Natural History reports that Megachroma pelagios has been spotted only 41 times. These hulking sharks grow to around 17 feet (5.18 meters) long, but their feeding habits shouldn't cause any alarm. Like the enormous whale shark, the megamouth is a filter feeder that grazes on plankton. As its name implies, this shark species has a notably large jaw, with the corners of its mouth extending back farther than its eyes. The 50 rows of teeth that line the inside are mostly useless, however. After all, it doesn't take much munching power to plow through plankton.
7. Angel Sharks:
You may have heard of angel sharks (Squatina californica) by other nicknames, including monkfish and sand devils. These quirky sharks resemble skates and rays more closely than the stereotypical great white. They have the same basic body parts as other sharks, except they're flattened out like a sting ray's silhouette. In fact, if their fins were attached to their heads, scientists probably would've classified angel sharks with skates and rays.
These bottom dwellers blend into their ocean-floor surroundings, thanks to their light-colored, speckled appearance. This camouflage, combined with keen eyesight, allows angel sharks to stealthily snap up prey. A surprisingly sharp set of pointy teeth finishes off the kill. Their floppy fins may look like ethereal wings, but these sharks are no underwater angels.
6. Goblin Sharks:
Elusive goblin sharks (Mitsukurina owstoni) look like relics from a bygone era. A long, protruding snout stretches above their jaws, resembling the pointy bill of a baseball cap. This unsightly anatomical oddity has earned the goblin shark the title of ugliest shark in the sea. Perhaps that's why it rarely surfaces for people to catch a glimpse. Since 1898, when the first goblin shark was spotted, only about 50 others have shown their fins.
Although humans haven't seen many examples of this strange species, goblins have actually been swimming around for quite a while. Scientists classify goblin sharks as living fossils, since they show up in the fossil record dating back 100 million years. Amazingly, the species appears to have changed very little during that time. If you're interested in seeing a live goblin shark, you may be out of luck — no one has successfully captured and kept one alive in captivity.
5. Cookiecutter Sharks:
Cookiecutter sharks (Isistius brasiliensis) don't need to consume entire fish to fill their appetites. Instead, these diminutive sharks take meal-sized bites out of flesh and call it a day. Maxing out at 20 inches (50.8 centimeters) in length, these brownish sharks look like oversized cigars.
Because of their small size, cookiecutters can't exactly hunt down their prey; instead, they let it come to them. Swimming toward the top of the ocean, the cookiecutter allows its bioluminescence, or natural glow, to disguise most of its body as a sun ray penetrating the water. Yet, a small strip on its neck doesn't glow, which causes larger fish to mistake the cookiecutter for a tiny, tasty morsel. When the larger fish goes in for the kill, the cookiecutter strikes quickly, sinking its teeth into the flesh and suctioning a chunk of meat into its mouth. Due to their nonlethal eat-and-run habits, cookiecutter sharks are considered parasites.
4. Hammerhead Sharks:
Hammerheads are some of the most distinctive and funniest-looking sharks in the sea. Known for their wide, flat noggins called cephalofoils, hammerheads sharks (Sphyrna mokarran) are distributed among four primary classifications: great, scalloped, smooth and bonnethead. Great hammerheads are the largest type, measuring up to 18 feet (5 meters) in length, but they aren't particularly threatening to humans.
Ichthyologists (shark experts) aren't exactly sure why this species has such oddly shaped heads. They suspect that it may help them find food more easily. The broad, flat surface is riddled with electrical sensors called ampullae of Lorenzini that help sharks detect prey. While the feature won't win hammerheads any shark beauty pageants, those cephalofoils ensure that they at least won't go home hungry.
3. Spotted Wobbegong Sharks:
Spotted wobbegongs (Orectolobus maculatus) look about as funny as their name sounds. These slow-motion drifters live along continental shelves and are often found among coral reefs and in shallower waters. Like the angel shark, wobbegongs bear a strong resemblance to skates and rays. Dark tan and dappled with lighter yellowish splotches, the wobbegong hides easily among its surroundings. It then uses its flat, protruding jaw to snap at passing prey. Octopi, crabs and lobsters routinely make the wobbegong's dinner menu.
If you're splashing around the coral reefs of Australia and New Guinea, watch out where you step. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, wobbegongs don't intentionally attack humans, but they may bite if stomped on.
2. Dwarf Lanternsharks:
When most people think of sharks, they probably envision an imposing gray fish with a fierce set of teeth and menacing caudal fin that pokes through the water. Yet, in terms of the entire shark family, a large body is more of the exception than the rule. The ReefQuest Center for Shark Research reports that only 10 of the 465 known shark species grow any longer than 13 feet (3.9 meters).
But the palm-sized dwarf lanternshark doesn't represent the species norm, either. Adult males grow to only 6 inches (16 centimeter) long. Discovered in 1965, the Etmopterus perryi takes home the prize as the smallest shark species on record. Incredibly, these minuscule fish may possibly give birth to live pups. Pretty impressive for such small fry!
1. Zebra Sharks:
Ironically, adult zebra sharks (Stegostoma fasciatum) look more like leopards than their striped equine namesake. That explains why the gray and black fish are called leopard sharks in their native southern Asia. When young, the tawny shark pups have white spots and stripes, which is where their Western "zebra" misnomer comes from. As they mature, however, the stripes gradually disappear.
The mid-sized fish isn't as imposing as its great white cousins, growing to maximum of 7.7 feet (2.35 meters) long, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History. Since they're highly adaptable, this species shows up in many aquariums as well.