Sharks are scary.
Some sharks are scary.
Some sharks are scary… if you’re a fish. Or a seal. Or plankton.
According to the popular press, sharks are killers – attacking anything in their path. But that’s not actually the case. In fact, the two largest sharks, the whale shark and basking shark, have tiny teeth and eat only plankton!
Out of more than 375 shark species, only about 33 species have ever been recorded biting a human. And of those, only 13 species have been involved in the 160 fatal bites since records began in 1580.
To put that another way, only 3% of shark species have been involved in fatal incidents.
And if we look closer at those numbers, only three of those species were responsible for nearly 138 of the 160 incidents. That means that less than 1% of the shark species are responsible for nearly 90% of the fatalities.
To put that into perspective, consider that the Center for Disease Control recently estimated that between 2000 and 2013, cows killed an average of 20 people per year in the United States. That’s a whole lot more than the 1 death/year attributed to sharks.
And that notion that sharks are eating machines? Also fiction.
Sharks are ectotherms – meaning, their body temperature is controlled by the outside environment (or, using a less-accurate, but more well-known term: cold blooded). As endotherms (warm-blooded animals), our bodies need to be maintained at a (frequently) higher temperature than the ambient air – we must produce heat. And to produce body heat, we need energy from food.
Because sharks do not need to maintain a higher body temperature than the water around them, they actually don’t need to eat as frequently as we do. In fact, sharks only eat about 2% of their body weight per day. That’s less than the average American eats each day!
Why then, are shark attacks a persistent fear of beach-goers? And why, when we hear the word shark do we conjure images of a brutal man-eater?
A lot of attention has been payed to the portrayal of sharks in the popular media. One study, analyzing media coverage of sharks in the US and Australia, found that of the 300 articles analyzed, most articles emphasized shark attacks and the risk to humans, but only 11% addressed any of our current conservation concerns.
Now for an experiment:
Take a look at these videos (and make sure your volume is turned up!)
How are you feeling? Nervous? Uncomfortable? Maybe even a little scared?
Next, watch this one:
How are you feeling now?
Chances are, you were probably pretty uncomfortable and anxious after watching the first video. After the second, you were more likely to be feeling more positively about sharks – perhaps empowered by their beauty and power. And you’re not alone. It’s been demonstrated that something as innocuous as playing “ominous” background music while viewing this footage can change people’s perceptions of sharks.
So the next time you visit the beach, remember to bring some uplifting music with you.
Feature image credit: Lwp Kommunikáció, Flickr (CC)