On Bipeds & Brutes

National Museum of Animals & Society Blog

It’s Shark Week!

Great white shark. Photo by Terry Goss, copyri...

Image via Wikipedia

Don’t you just love products and legacies of the 1980’s? Bad hair, neon colors, and New Kids on the Block; the list goes on… and on. Come 1987 and we have the first ever Shark Week on the Discovery Channel. This week-long series of action-packed TV programming has now become the longest running thematic event on cable and is aired in 72+ countries.

And there’s little wonder why; sharks have notoriously held a mysterious and threatening mystique in coastal and landlocked cultures alike for eons. Jaws of steel, piercing eyes, and powerful bodies add up to a worthy predator, one of the few that could – in theory and, to a small degree, actuality – prey on people. Through several decades of recent research and study, scientists are discovering that we (humans and sharks) are more alike on the genetic and cellular levels than we thought:

  • A 2006 University of FL (Go Gators!) report outlined that humans and sharks shared a common ancestor some 450 million years ago. During their hunts, sharks capitalize on their cells which are programmed to detect electrical signals emitted from their prey. These cells apparently also fashioned human cranial and facial features. Do you think we look shark-like?
  • Our immune systems are similar. Like mammals, sharks have all four types of blood cells.
  • Researchers at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore have found that genetic sequences in humans and elephant sharks are very similar as are sets of genes on chromosomes. We also share certain physiological and biochemical processes, including internal fertilization and live births.

Research is also explaining away or at least providing insight into the number of unprovoked shark attacks which still feed our shark-as-predator hysteria. The warming of waters through climate change may be driving sharks to new hunting grounds, food may be more readily available inland than in open waters , and some scientists argue that sharks are developing an affinity for human flesh. A leading proponent of the latter is Mexico’s Jose Leonardo Castillo who says that crime lords that dump human bodies into the ocean are fostering a shark’s palate for people.

Regardless, the facts still point out that shark attacks are rare and when they do occur it’s usually a case of mistaken identity, e.g. – a surfer lying flat atop his or her board looks an awful lot like a seal, from a shark’s point of view.

Happy Shark Week! I hope you’ll enjoy our shark-themed blog entries this week and will spend a little time exploring our interactions with sharks either on your own or through the Discovery Channel’s website or cable channel. So much to learn about these fascinating animals, and how we can live harmoniously.


2 responses to “It’s Shark Week!

  1. Marji August 2, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    I have been an avid fan of shark week since I was a wee thing. They are fascinating, primal creatures who we – despite 20 plus years of shark week! – know so little about. How sad it is that more than 70 million are brutally finned or fished each year. They are apex predators that help maintain the sustainability and diversity of an ecosystem science has only barely learned about.

  2. Carolyn Merino Mullin August 2, 2011 at 3:22 pm

    Hi Marji!
    Thanks for dropping us a line. Shark finning is an incredibly sad phenomenon, and we’ll be looking at that more on our Thursday entry – stay tuned!

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