11 Facts About the Sand Tiger Shark

iStock
iStock

If you’ve ever been to a major aquarium, there’s a good chance you've been face to fin with a sand tiger shark. Here’s everything you should know about this wicked-looking—but pretty mild-mannered —creature.

1. IT BELONGS TO THE SAME ORDER OF SHARKS AS THE GREAT WHITE.

The sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus) isn't related to the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), but it does have something in common with another popular species—the great white (Carcharodon carcharias). They're both Lamniformes, an order of sharks that share a signature look: five pairs of gill slits, two dorsal fins without spines, a relatively big mouth, and a lack of nictitating membranes, the protective, see-through shields over the eyes that many other sharks possess. Other Lamniformes are the basking shark, the goblin shark, and the prehistoric megalodon shark. True tiger sharks don’t make the cut; they’re part of a different order known as the Carcharhiniformes.

2. THOSE SCARY TEETH ARE LIKE DENTAL FISHING HOOKS.

Look at a sand tiger and the first thing you’ll notice will probably be its long, outward-pointing teeth, which remain visible even when the shark’s mouth is closed. Curved, slender, and serration-free, the teeth are perfect for puncturing the skins of small to mid-sized fish: slippery animals that can be hard to grab onto. This is in marked contrast to both the can-opener-shaped teeth we see in “real” tiger sharks and the thick slicing teeth of big-game hunters like great whites.

3. SAND TIGERS GULP AIR TO STAY BUOYANT.

By swallowing mouthfuls of air at the ocean’s surface, sand tigers can turn their stomachs into air pockets. Doing so helps the fish keep a neutral buoyancy level under the surface, enabling them to hover around motionlessly. (When it descends, the animal releases air bubbles out of its mouth.) No other shark exhibits this air-gulping behavior.

4. VIOLENT ENCOUNTERS WITH HUMANS ARE RARE.

Sand tigers tend to shy away from people, but they have been known to steal fish from spear- and net-hunters. That can bring them into conflict with humans, and when the sharks feel threatened, they may bite back in self-defense.

Still, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), a global database maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History, sand tigers have only been implicated in 29 “unprovoked attacks” on human beings since 1580. None of those attacks were fatal.

5. OVERFISHING HAS HURT THE SPECIES.

Sand tigers might not pose much of a threat to us, but through sport and commercial fishing, we’ve done a number on them.

Full-grown sand tigers are around 10 feet long and can weigh over 400 pounds. For decades, their intimidating size made the sharks prized trophies amongst recreational fishermen. From June to September 1918, 1900 sharks—primarily sand tigers—were caught in the area of Nantucket Sound. They continue to be hunted in some corners of the world for their meat, skin, teeth, and fins.

Because sand tigers tend to mate near shorelines, it's easy to net large numbers of them during the breeding season. Scientists estimate that the population living along the U.S. eastern seaboard shrank by 70 to 90 percent in the late 20th century due to overzealous commercial fishermen. A slow reproductive rate further handicaps the species, as does coastal pollution in the estuaries where their young tend to reside.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the sand tiger shark as “vulnerable”—the ranking given to creatures that are at risk of becoming endangered. Sand tigers now enjoy protected status in Australia and the United States.

6. IT’S CALLED THE “GREY NURSE SHARK” IN AUSTRALIA.

This is another name which doesn’t make evolutionary sense because the species isn’t related to actual nurse sharks. Sand tigers have also been referred to as “spotted ragged tooth sharks” because adults and juveniles occasionally come with reddish-brown spots on their backsides.

7. EMBRYOS CANNIBALIZE EACH OTHER.

Male sharks have two fin extensions, called claspers, that they use to deliver sperm into a female sand tiger shark's two uteri, both of which are capable of hosting five to seven developing embryos.

Not all of them will be born, though—in fact, the majority won’t. About five months into a nearly year-long gestation, a few of the eggs will begin to hatch and swim around the uterus. And they're hungry. To survive, the biggest fetuses devour unhatched eggs and smaller, weaker siblings who have already hatched out. When the mother finally gives birth, only two shark pups will remain—one for each uterus.

By shark standards, newborn sand tigers are exceptionally large, stretching up to 3 feet long apiece. At that size, the juvenile sharks have an easy time fighting off many would-be predators after they're born. Bulking up on their siblings beforehand might be a secret of survival.

The practice might also be a matter of sexual selection: Female sand tigers tend to mate with several different partners each breeding season, and it's been hypothesized that the eggs from the first encounter will be the earliest to fertilize. As a consequence, they’ll grow faster and be more likely to gobble up all the rival fetuses sired by other males. So in theory, a female sand tiger could choose to mate with her preferred partner first, giving his unborn offspring the best chance of survival.

8. LONG ISLAND HAS A SAND TIGER NURSERY.

To get away from adults who might attack them, pups (a.k.a. juvenile sharks) often spend a few months out of every year in shark nurseries: shallow, relatively secluded parts of the ocean where full-grown sharks are less common than they might be elsewhere. In 2016, researchers identified Great South Bay, a watery divide between Long Island and Fire Island, as a sand tiger nursery. It was discovered after a catch-and-release program noticed that young sand tigers who’d been fitted with tags were coming back to the same lagoon summer after summer. Other verified sand tiger nurseries include Massachusetts’s Plymouth and Duxbury Bays.

9. AQUARIUMS HAVE HAD A LOT OF SUCCESS WITH SAND TIGERS.

Tiger sharks and great whites are ill-suited for captivity, but sand tigers do well—given the right setup and proper care, sand tigers can live for decades in aquariums. One female named Bertha lived at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island for over 40 years before dying in 2008. (Attempts to breed sand tigers in captivity seldom work out, but some facilities like the now defunct Manly Sea Life Sanctuary in Australia had some success.)

To keep them in mixed-species tanks, staff members do their best to ensure that the sharks are well-fed at all times. At the Tennessee Aquarium, for example, the resident sand tigers are fed three times every week, with each individual receiving enough food per session to equate to around 2 percent of its body weight. This strategy discourages captive sharks from trying to eat live tankmates—although they may still nibble on the other fish every so often.

10. THE SHARKS LIKE TO CREEP AROUND SHIPWRECKS.

North Carolina’s outer banks are home to more than 2000 documented shipwrecks, earning it the nickname “Graveyard of the Atlantic.” Smaller fish are liable to transform ship remains into faux reefs, unwittingly attracting predatory sand tigers, who like to hunt on the sea floor. In the Graveyard of the Atlantic, divers have reported seeing over 100 sand tigers around a single wreck.

11. SAND TIGERS CAN HUNT COOPERATIVELY.

In 1915, American ichthyologist Russell J. Coles was monitoring fish off of Cape Lookout in North Carolina when he saw a gang of at least 100 sand tigers surround a school of bluefish. Working together, the sharks drove their victims into very shallow waters and then attacked them. On another occasion, a group of sand tigers near New South Wales started flailing their tails about like bullwhips, producing cracking noises that the sharks used to corral some yellowtail kingfish into a tight, vulnerable cluster—just in time for lunch.

14 Adorable, Vintage Photos of Rabbits

Chaloner Woods, Getty Images
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

In honor of International Rabbit Day (held annually on the fourth Saturday of September), we've pulled photographic proof that the furry little mammals have always been appreciated by children and the adults who use a number of rabbit-related phrases and idioms more often than they probably realize.

1. DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

Nursery school children playing with their pet rabbit Bubbles; 1939.
David Parker, Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Nursery school children playing with their pet rabbit Bubbles, 1939.

2. DUST BUNNY

 A woman spinning Angora rabbit wool in her garden, 1930.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

A woman spinning Angora rabbit wool in her garden, 1930.

3. MAD AS A MARCH HARE

A young boy holds a pet rabbit, 1955.
Charles Ley, BIPs/Getty Images

A young boy holds a pet rabbit, 1955.

4. BUY THE RABBIT

A golfer makes a practice drive while his pet rabbit minds the balls; 1938.
Reg Speller, Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

A golfer makes a practice drive while his pet rabbit minds the balls, 1938.

5. HONEY BUNNY

School children petting rabbits; 1949.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

Schoolchildren petting rabbits, 1949.

6. HAREBRAINED IDEA

A woman took her Himalayan rabbit, Albrecht Durer, on a walk in Hyde Park, 1939.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

A woman took her Himalayan rabbit, Albrecht Durer, on a walk in Hyde Park, 1939.

7. CUDDLE BUNNY

A little girl petting a large rabbit, 1949.
Chaloner Woods, Getty Images

A little girl petting a large rabbit, 1949.

8. LUCKY RABBIT'S FOOT

Schoolgirls care for pet rabbits, 1932.
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Schoolgirls care for pet rabbits, 1932.

9. PULL A RABBIT OUT OF A HAT

A young magician and his rabbit, 1971.
George W. Hales, Fox Photos/Getty Images

A young magician and his rabbit, 1971.

10. SNOW BUNNY

A woman shows off her two pet angora rabbits, circa 1955.
George Pickow, Three Lions/Getty Images

A woman shows off her two pet angora rabbits, circa 1955. Angoras can be sheared to provide enough wool for two sweaters each year.

11. THE EASTER BUNNY

A little girl holds an Easter bunny on a leash, circa 1955.
George Pickow, Three Lions/Getty Images

A little girl holds an Easter bunny on a leash, circa 1955.

12. A RABBIT TRAIL

Three children hold a rabbit, 1935.
H. Allen, Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Three children hold a rabbit, 1935.

13. RABBIT FOOD

A boy feeds his pet rabbit a lettuce leaf, circa 1955.
George Pickow, Three Lions/Getty Images

A boy feeds his pet rabbit a lettuce leaf, circa 1955.

14. RABBITING ON

Actresses Fiona Fullerton and Clare Clifford posting some of the many letters sent to the House of Lords and parliamentary candidates to request support for World Day for Laboratory Animals which was instituted that year, 1979.
Central Press, Getty Images

Actresses Fiona Fullerton and Clare Clifford posting some of the many letters sent to the House of Lords and parliamentary candidates to request support for World Day for Laboratory Animals which was instituted that year, 1979.

How a Wildlife Center Untangled Five Squirrels' Tails

Wisconsin Humane Society
Wisconsin Humane Society

Five juvenile gray squirrels in Wisconsin found themselves in a hairy situation recently. As The Guardian reports, bits of plastic and grass from their mother's nest got caught in their tails. Then the five tails became entangled, forming one solid knot.

This could have been a fatal situation had it not been for a "caring finder" who happened upon the squirrels and brought them to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre at the Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee.

"You can imagine how wiggly and unruly (and nippy!) this frightened, distressed ball of squirrelly energy was, so our first step was to anesthetize all five of them at the same time," the rehabilitation center wrote in a Facebook post on September 14. "With that accomplished, we began working on unraveling the 'Gordian Knot' (Google it) of tightly tangled tails and nest material." (For the record, a Gordian knot refers to a difficult problem and stems from a legend involving Alexander the Great.)

Next, they used scissors to carefully cut away the plastic and grass while taking care not to snip their tails, which had already sustained tissue damage due to the blood supply being cut off. After about 20 minutes, they were finally freed. Now, the squirrels have fully recovered and are "very active and vigorous." Staff at the center are still watching for signs of tail necrosis—the death of cells and tissue—but otherwise, the fur babies are expected to make a full recovery.

Tangled tails are not uncommon in the animal kingdom. A group of rats with entangled tails is called a "rat king," and the phenomenon has been reported since at least the mid-16th century. There's no equivalent term for when this happens to squirrels, although it does occur from time to time.

[h/t The Guardian]

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