Sociable Killers

New studies of the white shark (aka great white) show that its social life and hunting strategies are complex

white shark

Lured by a seal-shaped decoy that has been pulled along the surface on a fishing line, a white shark breaches completely out of the water. 

Alexandra Barron, courtesy of the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research (www.elasmo-research.org)
As for habitat, the white shark prefers cool and temperate seas worldwide. Its brain, swimming muscles, and gut maintain a temperature as much as twenty-five Fahrenheit degrees warmer than the water. That enables white sharks to exploit cold, prey-rich waters, but it also exacts a price: they must eat a great deal to fuel their high metabolism.

The white shark’s diet includes bony fish, crabs, rays, sea birds, other sharks, snails, squid, and turtles, but marine mammals may be its favorite meal. Many of them are big, powerful animals in their own right, but predators with the means to catch them hit caloric pay dirt when they sink their teeth into the mammals’ thick layer of blubber. Pound for pound, fat has more than twice as many calories as protein. By one estimate, a fifteen-foot white shark that consumes sixty-five pounds of whale blubber can go a month and a half without feeding again.

In fact, a white shark can store as much as 10 percent of its body mass in a lobe of its stomach, enabling it to gorge when the opportunity arises (such as when it encounters a whale carcass) and live off its hoard for extended periods. Usually, though, white sharks eat more moderately.

How does a white shark decide what to eat? A model known as optimal foraging theory offers a mathematical explanation of how predators weigh the calorie content of food against the energetic cost of searching for it and handling it. According to the theory, predators employ one of two basic strategies: they seek to maximize either energy or numbers. Energy maximizers selectively eat only high-calorie prey. Their search costs are high, but so is the energy payoff per meal. Numbers maximizers, by contrast, eat whatever kind of prey is most abundant, regardless of its energy content, thereby keeping per-meal search costs low.

Based on optimal foraging theory, A. Peter Klimley, a marine biologist at the University of California, Davis, has proposed an intriguing theory about the feeding behavior of the white shark. According to Klimley’s theory, white sharks are energy maximizers, so they reject low-fat foods. That neatly explains why they often feed on seals and sea lions but rarely on penguins and sea otters, which are notably less fatty. As we mentioned earlier, however, white sharks eat many other kinds of prey. Although those prey may be low-cal, compared with sea mammals, they may also be easier to find and catch, and thus sometimes energetically more attractive. It seems likely that white sharks follow both strategies, depending on which is the more profitable in a given circumstance.

Of all marine mammals, newly weaned seals and sea lions may offer the best energy bargain for white sharks. They have a thick layer of blubber, limited diving and fighting skills, and a naïveté about the dangers lurking below.

Furthermore, they weigh in at about sixty pounds, a good meal by anyone’s standards. Their seasonal presence at certain offshore islands—Seal Island, the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, and the Neptune Islands off South Australia—draws white sharks from far and wide. Each winter, white sharks drop by Seal Island for between a few hours and a few weeks, to feast on young-of-the-year Cape fur seals. White sharks that visit either Seal Island or the Farallon Islands come back year after year, making those islands the marine equivalent of truck stops.

Far from being the indiscriminate killers the movies have portrayed, white sharks are quite selective in targeting their prey. But on what basis does a shark select one individual from a group of superficially similar animals? No one knows for sure. Many investigators think predators that rely on single-species prey groups, such as schools of fish or pods of dolphins, have developed a keen sense for subtle individual differences that indicate vulnerability. An individual that lags behind, turns a little slower, or ventures just a bit farther from the group may catch the predator’s eye. Such cues may be at work when a white shark picks a young, vulnerable Cape fur seal out of the larger seal population at Seal Island.

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