Sharks get a bad reputation for being scary, and it's a stereotype that has been perpetuated for decades thanks to movies like "Jaws."
Dr. David Shiffman, a marine biologist who studies sharks at Arizona State University and author of the book “Why Sharks Matter: A deep dive with the worlds most misunderstood predator" told TODAY Parents that because of "fear mongering" media coverage, many people believe that sharks are a threat.
"In reality, due to the very low risk of sharks injuring humans and the important ecosystem services they provide, we are better off with healthy shark populations off our coasts than we are without them," Shiffman said. "But we are in danger of losing many species forever."
Shiffman emphasized that sharks are "amazing" animals who help keep the ocean healthy, and we should respect, not fear them.
Explaining shark bites to kids
Cassie Paumard, lead marine biologist and founder of the conservation organization Project Kolika, emphasized that sharks have no interest in eating people.
"What happens is sharks can be very curious or territorial at times. Like rattlesnakes and other animals, sharks display territorial signals through body language if they are uneasy with human presence," Paumard told TODAY Parents, adding that sharks display these behaviors amongst each other as well, especially when it comes to food. "The problem is, most people are unaware when there’s a shark nearby. Maybe they’re surfing, so they don’t even notice there’s a shark below them competing for space."
Paumard equated these situations to sibling behavior.
"Just like a sibling gets annoyed at their other sibling for being in their room, sharks can get annoyed too. But unlike humans, they can’t communicate with words," she said.
Paumard continued, "So they use their body language, and as a last resort will bite if their warning is not noticed. They bite not because they’re hungry, but because that’s how they communicate. Sharks will bite each other all the time to communicate various things, but sharks have a much tougher skin than we do, so they recover a lot faster if bit."
Why humans need sharks to survive.
Paumard offered a way for parents to explain the importance of sharks to kids.
"They are not puppies, but are also not mindless killing machines. Apex predator sharks are needed to keep a balanced and healthy ocean," Paumard explained, adding that sharks are wild animals and "like all wild animals, they deserve our proper respect."
She continued, "Without them, the whole ecosystem collapses. Sharks regulate organisms down to the phytoplankton level, and phytoplankton, amongst other algae, are responsible for 50-70% of our world’s oxygen. Without sharks, we lose a healthy productive ocean, and in turn, damage our own future."
Shiffman and Paumard offered 10 shark facts for kids that help to illustrate that sharks are interesting, not sinister.
10 shark facts for kids
- Sharks can sense electricity, almost like a "sixth sense," which means they can find prey that’s hiding under sand or mud even if they can’t see it or smell it or hear it.
- Sharks have no bones; their skeletons are made out of cartilage, what our ears and noses are made out of.
- Greenland sharks can live to be over 400 years old.
- Shark skin feels like sandpaper, because their skin is covered in tiny, specialized teeth called “dermal denticles” (aka “skin teeth”).
- A great white shark can have over 30,000 teeth in its lifetime, thanks to their never ending conveyer belt of teeth; when a shark loses a tooth, it can get replaced within a day!
- Sharks have been around for over 450 million years, making them older than trees.
- There are over 500 sharks worldwide, and about half of those are less than 3 feet long.
- The smallest shark is the dwarf lantern shark (smaller than a human hand!), found at depths of 928 — 1,440 feet along the northern tip of South America.
- The largest shark is the whale shark, reaching lengths of 33 feet long.
- The fastest shark in the ocean is the short fin mako shark. It can reach speeds of up to 46 mph, allowing them to hunt swordfish, another extremely fast predator.