April 7, 2023
Sharks Don’t Fit Stereotypes
- as seen by -Marcus Parker
Most often when we encounter depictions of sharks, they are portrayed as oversized, mindless, killing machines. I, however, am lucky enough to know that those are untruthful stereotypes. I have the privilege of getting up close and personal with sharks on a regular basis. I work as a Wild Animal Keeper at the New York Aquarium, a Wildlife Conservation Society park, where it is my duty to ensure our sharks are cared for to the highest possible standard.
As someone who spends at least 40 hours per week with sharks, I can tell you for certain that sharks are not oversized. In fact, out of 500+ shark species, 75% do not grow beyond five feet and over 100 species do not grow larger than 2 feet. Small sharks are common in nearly every ocean of the world. They live in small places among coral reefs and rock ledges and may become prey for larger animals. You have been misled.
We train our animals, including sharks, to participate in their daily care. Our sharks are capable of recognizing specific training targets and associating other cues such as sounds and lights with their training sessions. The bulk of my day entails training sessions with our sharks. In reality, our sharks are capable of a lot. They work on everything from mock veterinary exams to being picked up and held in the palm of our hands (remember, they are not oversized). They show the ability to learn every day. They have not been given the credit they deserve.
This may be the hardest truth of all to believe, but sharks are not killing machines. They are not the insatiable, blood-thirsty monsters as portrayed in the media. Many sharks living in the wild only eat about once a month. Sharks are not interested in eating everything in sight. Not only do they all have very specific dietary needs as a result of their evolution and ecological niches, but they even show individual preferences for different food types.
Here at the aquarium, some of the best examples of stereotype-breaking sharks are our white-spotted bamboo sharks (Chiloscyllium plagiosum). They have been named for superheroes and live inside our Coral Tunnel exhibit within the Ocean Wonders: Sharks! building. Our white-spotted bamboo sharks only reach roughly three feet in length, only eat three times per week, and have been trained to come inside of a net in exchange for a food reward (among many other behaviors). While some individuals, like Loki, are almost always ready for food, others, like Groot, are less interested. Groot, for example, detests clam. He will flat-out refuse to eat it. He strongly prefers to eat fish. We give him a variety including herring and silversides, some of his favorites. He is an individual with preferences that is capable of making decisions. See if you can spot him and his tank mates the next time you visit. You’ll be armed with a deeper understanding of who sharks really are.