Newton Blog

« The Standard Model Part I: The Periodic Table of Physics | Blog Home Page | Female Genitalia Are Cool, Too! »

Sharks Are Far More Fascinating than Terrifying

Worldwide deaths from shark attacks hit a two-decade high in 2011. An unnerving statistic like this seemingly vindicates our worst fears about sharks. So exactly how many humans did these "monsters of the deep" kill last year? A hundred? Two hundred?

Nope. Only a dozen. And none of these deaths occurred in the United States. In reality, humans need not fear a gruesome death by shark attack. We actually have a higher chance of being struck by lighting or being done in by a falling coconut.

On the flip side, sharks have every reason to fear humans. Anywhere from 30 million to 100 million sharks are slain by man each year. Many of these sharks die as a result of bycatch, while others are mutilated for their fins.

98a660924211b9a21fd64f11b4d0.jpgThis 40-foot whale shark was caught early February in Pakistan.

But facts often don't stand a chance against the power of terrifying news stories or powerful cinema. By itself, Jaws did more to elicit shark terror than any real shark ever could. Ironically, the story would have been accurate if it had been told with the shark as the victim and man as the antagonist. It could have been called "PROPELLERS."

Since penning Jaws in 1974, author Peter Benchley spent decades learning as much as he could about the animal he vilified. In 2002, he eloquently reminisced on his fish tale with a hint of sorrow:

"We knew so little back then, and have learned so much since, that I

couldn't possibly write the same story today. I know now that the mythic

monster I created was largely a fiction. I also know now, however, that

the genuine animal is just as--if not even more--fascinating."

Fascinating is almost an understatement. A cholesterol-type compound in dogfish sharks called squalamine has recently been shown to be effective at combating several human viruses, including dengue fever and hepatitis. The substance is currently in human trials for treating cancer and eye disorders. In addition, researchers are finding more and more that sharks are capable of forming complex social groups and utilizing cooperative hunting techniques. This is a far cry from the shark's common misconception as a mindless machine.

funny-shark-pictures-2.jpg Peter Benchley's aforementioned change of heart has inspired many people, including marine biologist, Dr. Ryan Johnson. "[Peter Benchley] illustrated to me the power that visual media has to inform the wider public, outside the limited field of scientists," Johnson said on his website.

Taking a note from Benchley, Johnson set out last November to demonstrate to the world that sharks are not murderous marine beasts. He recruited two beautiful bikini-clad women to swim with several black-tipped reef sharks, the species responsible for 60% of the attacks in Florida. The women survived. The sharks didn't even take a nibble.