Galeophobia, Shark Teeth, and Non-Expert Awareness Campaigns: Dear Shark Man, Volume 5

Welcome to Volume #5 of Dear Shark Man, an advice column inspired by a ridiculous e-mail I received. You can send your questions to me via twitter (@WhySharksMatter) or e-mail (WhySharksMatter at gmail).

Dear Shark Man,

What’s the history of the shark’s cultural image as a sneaky aggressive predator? Do other cultures see it differently?

Imaginative in Irvine

Dear imaginative,

Much of the large-scale public fear of sharks we see today can be traced to the movie “Jaws” (read my Gizmodo article about this here). Shark conservation biologists actually use the term “the Jaws effect” in peer reviewed scientific literature. Terror of sharks resulting from that movie is fairly common even among people you wouldn’t expect; for example, both of my parents are outdoorsy and have post-graduate degrees, and yet both reported being afraid to go swimming in pools or lakes the summer after Jaws came out. Personally, I don’t think that modern shark b-movies like “SharkNado” or “Two-Headed Shark Attack” inspire the same level of public misunderstanding because they’re obviously silly, but others disagree.

Media coverage of shark bites also plays a major role. If someone gets bitten by a shark anywhere in the world, it’s headline news everywhere even if the bite isn’t severe enough to require more than a band-aid. In Australia, 38% of reported “shark attacks” didn’t even involve any injury at all. This is part of why I, along with many other shark scientists, have called on the popular press to avoid the inflammatory and inaccurate term “shark attack” in favor of a typology of other terms (shark sighting, shark encounter, shark bite, fatal shark bite).

Other cultures absolutely see sharks differently. Where I now live in western Canada, coastal First Nations have stories about a supernatural being called the Dogfish Woman. In some South Pacific cultures, sharks are seen as spirits of ancestors called aumakua (briefly referenced in Moana, see below), and there are even shark gods like Dakuwaqa.

Maui in the form of a shark, from Moana. You’re welcome.

Dear Shark Man,

Dear Shark Man, I have been thinking about teeth. Could a shark hypothetically generate new teeth forever? When new teeth erupt is it uncomfortable as it is for a human? Is this why they have a reputation for being cranky and should we give them more chew toys to help?

Baffled in Boston

Dear Baffled,

I asked Southern Fried Science’s resident shark tooth expert Joshua Moyer. Here’s what he told me:

“To my knowledge, sharks never stop losing and replacing teeth. I know of references that indicate that the rate of tooth replacement may change with age, season, sex, etc. At the risk of being that nit picky science nerd – since you can’t ever really prove a negative (i.e. sharks never run out of teeth), I think the best we can do is say that there is no mention in the literature of an extremely old shark with no teeth.”

As for your second question, sharks do not really experience pain in the same way we do. Whether fish feel pain at all is a bit of an open scientific question, and the answer is a matter of the presence and density of certain types of nerve cells (and is not influenced by strong opinions of animal rights activists who yell at me on twitter). Sharks can certainly feel pressure and detect damage or injury, so I imagine they’d probably be aware that new teeth are growing. However, if this happens all the time throughout your whole life, maybe you’d get used to it.

Dear Shark Man,

I love sharks, and am very worried about shark conservation. I want to help! I am starting a new organization that seeks to bust myths about sharks online. As you’ve often said, wrong information about sharks is a major problem that affects whether or not people want to protect sharks.

However, I am not a scientist or an employee of an environmental non-profit group. I was hoping that you could help me come up with a list of shark myths and write up some reasons why they’re wrong, and that you could help me get in touch with other experts who can do the same.

New at this in Nottingham*

Dear New at this,

When people ask me if they should start a new non-profit or awareness campaign, the first thing I ask is “what will you do differently from what the many other groups in this crowded space are already doing, and what existing need will you fill?” I find that most people aren’t even aware that there are other groups doing the exact same thing that they want to start doing, which appears to be the case here. Certainly sharks can use all the help they can get, but reinventing the wheel poorly is not going to help very much, and may even harm ongoing successful efforts.

I’m going to be blunt here: given that you’ve explicitly said that you don’t know how to tell what is or is not wrong information, why are you founding a new organization that focuses on debunking wrong information? If you need me and other experts to do all the work for you, what exactly is it that you bring to the table here? You don’t need to be a scientist or an employee of a conservation organization to have expertise, but you certainly don’t appear to have relevant expertise of any kind.

I’m thrilled that you want to help sharks, but I strongly recommend that you do not do this and instead do something else. Many existing efforts need the help of enthusiastic non-experts, but people who don’t know anything about this topic should probably not try to be public spokespeople or leaders of new organizations.  If you’re interested in debunking myths, help spread the writings of existing effective science communicators instead of asking us to write the same stuff all over again for a new group that currently has no influence. If you’re interested in shark conservation, contact existing successful shark conservation non-profits and ask them what they need from enthusiastic non-experts; you are far more likely to help sharks by serving as a volunteer for an existing successful organization than being the president and founder of a small organization with no expertise or resources.

There will always be a need for small organizations with particularly focused expertise that isn’t found elsewhere, but I have yet to see a small organization with no relevant expertise do anything other than spread confusion and misunderstanding. If you proceed with your plan, it is very likely that you will end up spreading shark myths even as you seek to debunk them, and if you do that, I will publicly correct those myths as I do with all other shark myths+.

For what it’s worth, I have no experience in natural resources management or environmental advocacy, but have asked colleagues in both areas what they think about this issue, and they almost all strongly agree with me. I may well be an elitist bastard, but pointing out that technical jobs that require expertise and experience are best performed by people with expertise and experience is not elitism. Please consider not doing this, and doing something else instead. Starting a new campaign like this will not help sharks.

That’s it for Volume #5 of Dear Shark Man! Keep your Dear Shark Man questions coming, and be sharky to each other!

If you appreciate my shark research and conservation outreach, please consider supporting me on Patreon! Any amount is appreciated.

*This is a real letter I received and a real response I sent. However, this conversation occurred prior to the Dear Shark Man column, and is resurrected here with names removed because I think it’s important to talk about.

+This happened. People don’t appreciate how much of a burden it is to be right all the time.

One comment

  1. Brad Mongeau · December 13, 2017

    I just spent my 336th night at San Nicolas Island, California since 1993. The entire island is a rookery, why have i never seen a GW there??

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