|Sharks are a group of fish characterized by a cartilaginous skeleton, five to seven gill slits on the sides of the head, and pectoral fins that are not fused to the head. Modern sharks are classified within the clade Selachimorpha (orSelachii), and are the sister group to the rays. However, the term “shark” has also been used for extinct members of the suborder Elasmobranchii outside the Selachimorpha, such as Cladoselache and Xenacanthus. Under this broader definition, the earliest known sharks date from more than 420 million years ago.|
Since that time, sharks have diversified into over 400 species. They range in size from the small dwarf lanternshark(Etmopterus perryi), a deep sea species of only 17 centimetres (6.7 in) in length, to the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the largest fish in the world, which reaches approximately 12 metres (39 ft). Despite its size, the whale shark feeds only on plankton, squid, and small fish by filter feeding. Sharks are found in all seas and are common down to depths of 2,000 metres (6,600 ft). They generally do not live in freshwater although there are a few known exceptions, such as the bull shark and the river shark that can survive in both seawater and freshwater. They breathe through five to seven gill slits. Sharks have a covering of dermal denticles that protects their skin from damage and parasites in addition to improving their fluid dynamics. They also have several sets of replaceable teeth.
Well-known species such as the great white shark, tiger shark, blue shark, mako shark, and the hammerhead sharkare apex predators—organisms at the top of their underwater food chain. Their predatory skill fascinates and frightens humans, even though their survival is threatened by human-related activities.
Until the 16th century, sharks were known to mariners as “sea dogs”. The etymology of the word “shark” is uncertain. One theory is that it derives from theYucatec Maya word xok, pronounced ‘shok’. Evidence for this etymology comes from the OED, which notes the name “shark” first came into use after Sir John Hawkins‘ sailors exhibited one in London in 1569 and used the word “sharke” to refer to the large sharks of the Caribbean Sea.
An alternate etymology states that the original sense of the word was that of “predator, one who preys on others” from the German Schorck, a variant ofSchurke “villain, scoundrel” (cf. card shark, loan shark, etc.), which was later applied to the fish due to its predatory behaviour.
Shark teeth are embedded in the gums rather than directly affixed to the jaw, and are constantly replaced throughout life. Multiple rows of replacement teeth grow in a groove on the inside of the jaw and steadily move forward in comparison to a conveyor belt; some sharks lose 30,000 or more teeth in their lifetime. The rate of tooth replacement varies from once every 8 to 10 days to several months. In most species, teeth are replaced one at a time as opposed to the simultaneous replacement of an entire row, which is observed in the cookiecutter shark.
Tooth shape depends on the shark’s diet: those that feed on mollusks and crustaceans have dense and flattened teeth used for crushing, those that feed on fish have needle-like teeth for gripping, and those that feed on larger prey such as mammals have pointed lower teeth for gripping and triangular upper teeth with serrated edges for cutting. The teeth of plankton-feeders such as the basking shark are small and non-functional.
Shark skeletons are very different from those of bony fish and terrestrial vertebrates. Sharks and other cartilaginous fish (skates and rays) have skeletons made of cartilage and connective tissue. Cartilage is flexible and durable, yet is about half the normal density of bone. This reduces the skeleton’s weight, saving energy. Because sharks do not have rib cages, they can easily be crushed under their own weight on land.
Jaws of sharks, like those of rays and skates, are not attached to the cranium. The jaw’s surface (in comparison to the shark’s vertebrae and gill arches) needs extra support due to its heavy exposure to physical stress and its need for strength. It has a layer of tiny hexagonal plates called “tesserae“, which are crystalblocks of calcium salts arranged as a mosaic. This gives these areas much of the same strength found in the bony tissue found in other animals.
Generally sharks have only one layer of tesserae, but the jaws of large specimens, such as the bull shark, tiger shark, and the great white shark, have two to three layers or more, depending on body size. The jaws of a large great white shark may have up to five layers. In the rostrum (snout), the cartilage can be spongy and flexible to absorb the power of impacts.
Fin skeletons are elongated and supported with soft and unsegmented rays named ceratotrichia, filaments of elastic protein resembling the horny keratin in hairand feathers. Most sharks have eight fins. Sharks can only drift away from objects directly in front of them because their fins do not allow them to move in the tail-first direction.
What is your favorite shark and why?