10 Illuminating Facts About Great White Sharks

Great white shark near surface of ocean near NSW, Australia

 Alistair Pollock Photography / Getty Images

Like other animals that have been deemed monstrous due to a frightening media presence, great white sharks are commonly misunderstood. Despite becoming a symbol of terror and aggression by the classic horror movie, Jaws, we don't know a lot about the largest predatory fish on the planet. What we do know about them is that their reputation as “man-eaters” is probably overblown. 

Great white sharks also spend time in the same places other fish and marine mammals like to be, such as the coastal waters of the western and northeastern United States, and the coasts of southern Australia, New Zealand, Chile, the southern part of Africa, and the Mediterranean Sea. Their name comes from their white belly — the rest of their body is a greyish blue or brown, which helps them blend into the ocean when seen from above. Understanding these sharks for what they are — and not the depiction we most commonly refer to — is important since, like many large ocean-dwelling animals, their numbers are declining.

1. Great White Sharks Are Massive Creatures

Great White Swims through Bait fish
Cat Gennaro / Getty Images

Great white sharks can grow up to 20 feet long with weights of several tons. Their body is torpedo-shaped, which helps them produce bursts of speed while moving through the water. This, along with their conical face shape and large jaws ringed with sharp teeth, helps them ambush prey, rushing in quickly and bites, hoping to inflict a fatal blow.

2. They’re Curious About (but Not Hungry for) Humans

Each year, over 100 shark attacks are reported throughout the world, and about a third to half of those are great white shark attacks. About half of all shark attacks are unprovoked, whereas the rest are attacks on boats that come into their territory or on people who harass or try to feed them.

There’s a reason these numbers are relatively low and only 4 deaths occur per year because of them: great whites aren't trying to eat us. Research shows the curious great white shark will try to determine if a human is something it wants to eat by doing a taste test bite. Scientists have reason to believe sharks think we might be a strange-looking seal.

While the sharks still pose a danger to humans, we've certainly caused them more harm, killing about 100 million sharks and rays every year. 

3. Great White Sharks Are Considered Vulnerable

Overfishing and getting caught in fishing nets are the two biggest threats to great white shark populations. Scientists agree that this species' numbers are dropping, although global population data on great white sharks isn't complete. Yet the IUCN has gathered enough information on various regional populations to classify great white sharks as vulnerable and not yet endangered.

4. Their Scientific Name Refers To Their Teeth

Carcharadon carcharias, the scientific name for the great white shark, has an interesting breakdown: Carcharodon is Greek for "sharpen teeth," while carcharias is Greek for point or type of shark, which is how the great white got its name "white pointer" in Australia.

Despite their large teeth, they don’t chew their food; rather, they use those teeth to capture and kill their prey, then rip the food into pieces that can be more easily swallowed whole. 

5. Great White Sharks Have a Powerful Sense of Smell

Although you may have heard great whites can smell blood from a mile away, that turns out to be a myth. However, they can detect one drop of blood in 100 liters (about 26 gallons) of water. This often helps them find a variety of animals lower on the food pyramid, including other sharks, seals, dolphins, sea turtles, sea lions, and sea birds. (They might eat already-dead whales, although this isn’t particularly common as they’re not scavengers.)

6. They Have Electric Sensors To Locate Prey at Close Range

great white shark,carcharodon carcharias,swallowing bait,south australia
Gerard Soury / Getty Images

Along with a surprisingly strong sense of smell, great whites (similar to other sharks) have a sensor that can detect electricity. It’s located in their noses — a small chamber filled with nerves that are encased in a gel-filled tube that opens directly into the surrounding seawater through a pore. Called the Ampullae of Lorenzini, this system enables sharks to detect the electrical fields of other animals’ hearts. Mostly, great white sharks use this sense to guide themselves to its prey when it’s at very close range.  

7. There Is Still More Research To Do

Scientists don't about how great white sharks socialize, and they have been usually found living solo, although some couples have been found that travel and hunt together. Some of these sharks stay in the same area their whole lives, while others travel long distances — one South African shark was recorded as swimming to Australia and back. Yet overall, little is known about their mating practices and courtship behaviors.

8. They Have Special Muscles To Keep Their Core Body Warm 

Great white sharks have a special adaptation that means they can live in water that would be too cold for other predatory sharks. Called regional endothermy, they are able to store heat that’s generated by their muscles when they are swimming. Their circulatory system then moves this heat to colder parts of their body, ultimately meaning that great white sharks have a warmer body temperature than the waters they swim in. This type of warm-bloodedness sets great white sharks apart from most other fish, which are cold-blooded, and they are the largest fish to have this trait (some sea turtles have it too).

9. They Can Jump Out of the Water Like a Whale

Great White Shark
USO / Getty Images

Jumping out of the water takes a lot of energy, so great white sharks only do it when they are trying to catch their favorite prey: seals. But when they are on the hunt, these massive sharks are fully capable of exploding out of the water into the air.

10. Humans Are Their Biggest Threat

Humans hunt many types of sharks for food. Due to their reputation and size, great white sharks' teeth are hunted and sold as jewelry. Like other sharks, great whites are also caught and finned — this practice means that once caught, a shark’s dorsal and lateral fins and tail are hacked off. The shark, usually still alive, is thrown back into the ocean, where it cannot swim and sinks to the bottom of the ocean and suffocates. 

The fins are often worth more than the whole shark and are easier to transport and sell. They are sold for use in soup and traditional medicines, especially in China and Chinese diaspora communities. Shark fin bans in the U.S. and other countries have been criticized as not being impactful enough to help save shark populations. Great white sharks are also accidentally caught in commercial fishing nets, where they often die. 

As top predators, great white sharks eat weak, sick animals out of their ecosystems, which indirectly keeps fishery stocks healthy and balanced. This is one of many reasons why ocean scientists everywhere want to see them protected.

Save the Great White Shark

  • Support the World Wildlife Fund and other reputable organizations dedicated to protecting the great white shark species from human activity.
  • Refrain from purchasing great white shark tooth jewelry or products made from shark fins.
  • Educate yourself and spread the word. We're a danger to them more than they are to us.
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