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
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.
Joshua Moyer is an ichthyologist specializing in the evolution, biodiversity, and morphology of sharks and their relatives, collectively known as elasmobranchs. He is a member of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) and the American Elasmobranch Society (AES). He has co-authored multiple scientific articles about shark teeth and their roles in understanding elasmobranch evolution. Joshua earned his Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and teaches evolutionary biology at Ithaca College. Joshua also routinely lectures in courses on marine biology, vertebrate biology, and elasmobranchs. He has co-taught courses in shark biology in the field, laboratory, classroom, and most recently the online edX.org course “Sharks! Global Biodiversity, Biology, and Conservation.”
Whenever I tell someone that I study sharks I can see their imagination shift into high gear. Their eyebrows go up, their mouths make an intrigued smile, and I’m usually asked whether I’ve gone swimming with sharks or if I’ve ever been bitten by one. Yes, I’ve been in the water with sharks. No, a shark has never bitten me (although I did drop the jaw of a Mako shark on my arm once – that left an interesting scar). I’ve also gone on shark tagging trips and many spent days as an undergraduate documenting the social behaviors of sharks in aquaria. Those are what I call my “dinner party stories.” They’re the anecdotes people expect to hear from a shark biologist. I’m frequently happy to oblige. However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that oceanic adventures are not essential to being a shark biologist, and they’re no substitute for curiosity and educated observation. In other words, you may see a shark, but you need to know how to really look at it – how to study it.
A member of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (ASIH) and the American Elasmobranch Society (AES), Joshua Moyer is an ichthyologist specializing in the evolution, biodiversity, and morphology of sharks and their relatives. Joshua has co-authored multiple scientific articles about shark teeth and routinely lectures in courses on marine biology, vertebrate biology, and evolution. He earned his Masters of Science in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Cornell University and is an instructor in the massively open online course (MOOC) in shark biology offered by Cornell and the University of Queensland through edX.org. Follow him on twitter!
What is a shark without its teeth? For that matter, what is any animal without the ability to process and ingest its food? So important are teeth to the way many jawed vertebrates survive, that you can tell a great deal about an animal just by looking at its teeth, or in some cases, lack thereof. Sharks are no different. By asking a series of questions, you can look at shark teeth and begin to piece together a more complete picture of the shark whose teeth you’re studying.