Sharks: Man-Eaters and Others

With suggestions that Americans turn to economic account some of the smaller species of the Atlantic Coast

sharks attacks Jersey Shore
Great White Shark or Man-Eater, taken Off Palm Beach, Florida: This young twelve-foot specimen of the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) was taken by Mr. Sidney M. Colgate in December 1913, while out hunting sharks with Iris family. Man-eaters were not expected; other sharks generally succumb quietly when harpooned. This creature, however, when struck, turned and hit the wooden harpoon pole in two, attacked the launch with such vigor that it sprung a leak, and was only finally dispatched by several revolver shots. These sharks are characterized by large size and voracity, and by unusually large mouth and teeth, which render them very capable of man-eating, and circumstantial evidence also accounts for their sinister name. The maximum length attained is about forty feet, with teeth three inches long, but from the size of fossil teeth found it is thought that in the past individuals of the same genus (Carcharodon) must have attained a length of seventy to eighty feet [but see note 3]. The white shark inhabits tropical waters and is rarely found within fifty miles of New York. (Mr. Sidney M. Colgate)
sharks attacks Jersey Shore
Model, in the American Museum of Natural History, of jaws of the gigantic fossil shark, the largest and probably most formidable fish of which anything is known. It attained a length of about eighty feet and is an ancestor of the present-day great white shark, or man-eater [but see note 3].
sharks attacks Jersey Shore
Basking or bone shark (Cetorhinus maximus). A harmless, sluggish, gigantic shark (nearly forty feet long) at home in the Arctic seas but sometimes straying south. Has been described as the fish that swallowed Jonah, but, in spite of its huge size and wide mouth, its minute teeth and large gill openings show that it feeds on very small marine creatures. (Courtesy United Stales Bureau of Fisheries)
sharks attacks Jersey Shore
The thrasher or swingle-tail (Alopias vulpinus) is distinguished from all other sharks by the astonishing length of its tail, which may be six or seven feet in a large specimen. It is a fish feeder, circling around a school of fish, using its tail to whip the water and keep them together until the moment of engulfment. A pair of thrashers sometimes fish together in this manner. The theory that thrashers kill their prey by lashing it with the tail is not borne out by observation. (Photo of cast in American Museum of Natural History)

The unprecedented attacks by sharks on human beings along the middle Atlantic coast of the United States in the summer of 1916, resulting in the death of four bathers, produced a profound sensation and materially interfered with the attendance at seaside resorts, while leading to an astonishing amount of newspaper discussion in the course of which the public was regaled with more fiction and also more facts about sharks in general than ever before in our history. Several departments of the federal government became involved in the matter, various individuals and committees offered rewards for the capture of "man-eating" sharks, and a bill was introduced in Congress appropriating money for the purpose of enabling the Department of Commerce to coöperate in the extermination of man-eating sharks on the New Jersey coast.

The Bureau of Fisheries was incessantly importuned to explain why sharks were behaving as they were, and to take action that would prevent further attacks. There was some criticism of our inability to cope with the situation, although obviously there was little that could he done. The culprits were never identified. It was not known whether one individual shark of a species common to the region was running amuck; whether representatives of several local species had been forced to attack human beings because of certain undetermined biological or physical conditions; or whether there was an advent of a shark or sharks from distant waters with feeding habits different from those of the domestic species, which in no former years had exhibited any man-eating tendency and were dangerous only when they themselves were attacked.

There were no attacks reported after the middle of July and the scare subsided; but out of all the excitement and discussion there has arisen a keen lay interest in sharks—their kinds, habits, size, distribution, and economic value; and in answer to that interest there have been special displays in museums and publication of much authentic matter in the secular and scientific press.—Hugh M. Smith.

NOTE: Where necessary, the Latin binomials in this text have been updated courtesy of R. Aidan Martin, co-author of “Sociable Killers,” an article about white sharks featured in the October 2006 issue.

The term “man-eater” is applied by the public to almost any shark of medium or large size, and during the recent scare any shark over five feet long was likely to be called a “man-eater” and recorded as such in the daily press. The writer saw a published photograph of a “man-eater” shark and its proud captor; assuming the height of the man to have been six feet, the shark could not have exceeded three feet in length. In fish literature the name “man-eater” is restricted to the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), known also as the great blue shark The name man-eater is justified, however, only by the large size, formidable teeth, voracity, and obvious ability of the fish to kill and eat human beings; it is certainly not warranted by a confirmed man-eating habit. (1)

While this fish occurs regularly, although not abundantly, in summer along parts of our coast where sea bathing is extensively indulged in, it must be regarded as comparatively inoffensive in our waters even if the recent fatalities on the New Jersey coast are attributable to it.

The genus Carcharodon reached its climax in the past, during the Eocene or Miocene, when fish immensely larger than any now existing must have roamed the seas. It has been thought that, because of the size of the fossil teeth (opinion of the late Dr. George Brown Goode), individuals seventy to eighty feet long must have been common. The model of the jaws of a shark of this genus in the American Museum of Natural History (see photograph below) suggests the colossal proportions attained in geological times. In these degenerate modern days the maximum length reached by the white shark appears to be about forty feet, with teeth three inches long. The British Museum contains the jaws of a specimen thirty-six feet long from Australia.(2) The gustatory feats that can be performed by fish of such size may be judged by the accomplishment of a thirty-foot individual on the California coast which had in its stomach an entire sea lion weighing one hundred pounds. The writer has before him a note on a shark of this species collected by a Bureau of Fisheries party at Menemsha Bight, Martha’s Vineyard, on August 19, 1916; it was twelve feet eight inches long, and more than five feet in girth at the pectorals, and was estimated to weigh one thousand pounds.(3)

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