July 20, 2018
KSU biology professor tackles Shark Week fears
Is it safe to swim in the ocean during #SharkWeek? Read below for all the answers to your most burning shark-related questions, tackled by Kennesaw State University’s Christopher Sanford, professor and chair of the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology. #SharkWeekWatch the video
Your research area is shark functional morphology of feeding and locomotion. What is that and what have you learned that might be of interest to non-scientists?I have worked on sharks as part of my research on bony fishes. What I have learned from the research on sharks is that many sharks use a combination of swimming and suction to catch their prey. As it turns out, suction is more effective when feeding on the bottom rather than in midwater.
Why do we fear sharks and why do sharks get such a bad rap?
Sharks get a bad rap yet they are very beautiful, efficient animals that are very well adapted to their environment and have been around for a very long time.
People are innately afraid of sharks, in large part due to fear of the unknown, and just like we are afraid of the dark from a young age, we are also afraid of what we cannot see. We are very visual, and if there is something you cannot see and it moves and has the potential to attack and harm you, it is human nature to be afraid. This is perpetuated by sensationalizing and dramatizing attacks when they do happen. The irony is, the chances of being attacked by a shark are almost zero. You have a better chance of being killed from bee stings, trampled by an elephant or struck by lightning. But those things aren’t on our radar. What also drives this fear is that people are out of their element in the water, and sharks are in their natural habitat. We’re the visitors. We’re encroaching on their environment. This is true of any wild animal that encounters humans in the environment that is the natural habitat of the animal.
Why does the world need sharks?They are critical top predators in the ecosystems in which they live. Without them, the delicate balance of the ecosystem is likely to be dramatically impacted. Often removing a top predator from the environment can have unanticipated consequences that destabilize the natural balance. One of the most immediate impacts of eliminating a predator from the environment is that it allows the natural prey to overpopulate that leads to many more problems.
What would surprise people to know about them?
Humans are not the natural prey of sharks and the chances of you being attacked are almost zero. Furthermore, most people attacked by sharks survive. Sharks have several rows of teeth that get constantly replaced throughout their lifetime.
Most sharks feed by using suction in combination with swimming and overtaking their prey. Recent research suggests that they can navigate using the earth’s magnetic field.
How many sharks are killed every year and why?We really don’t know because many are not reported. The number according to conservation agencies such Pew Charitable Trust is staggering and far more than can be sustained given the low reproductive rate of sharks. Indeed, there is some evidence that some shark species are already overfished to the point of extinction. This can also be driven by killing of sharks on an industrial scale, for example to support the shark-fin industry.
Who is more likely to get attacked by a shark and why?
There is no easy answer to this, and no one really knows why humans are attacked. What I can tell you is sharks don’t naturally eat people! That’s a misconception. No one knows for sure what their motivation is when they attack people, but in some cases it’s probably mistaken identity. They could mistake someone on a surfboard or a swimmer in a wet suit for a seal, which is their natural prey. Sharks typically bite and leave once they realize what they’ve bitten is not a marine animal.
Most attacks are probably the result of mistaken identity and opportunistic encounters between humans and sharks. Your chances of being attacked even when you encounter a shark is almost zero.
Sharks do tend to feed more during early morning (dawn) or late evening (dusk), so these times are probably best to avoid particularly when sharks are known to be in the area.
If you are cut and are bleeding you should probably leave the water. Sharks do have a good sense of smell.
If there are shark prey in the area, for example, schools of small fish jumping in the area, there is a good possibility that a predator is in the area, so beware.
Where do most shark attacks occur and why?
In less than 5 feet of water and less than 100 feet from the shore. Don’t assume just because you are shallow water that you are safe.
If there are people fishing in the area, be aware that there is a possibility that predators might be taking advantage! When sharks have been sighted, you swim at your own risk!
What should you do if you’re attacked?Most attacks are the result of exploratory bites. So once the shark has bitten it will most likely swim off. However, if you are attacked, and have the opportunity go for sensitive areas such as the gills or eyes.
How did you feel when you were snorkeling around sharks in the Galápagos Islands?There were a lot of sharks nearby. It’s important again remember that it’s not in a shark’s nature to attack humans. I did feel a little uneasy, but being so close to them, it is impossible not to appreciate how beautiful and graceful they are. At the same time, I realized how completely out of my element I was, and – if for some reason they did decide to attack me – there’s just no getting away!