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The Many Shapes and Sizes of Sharks

Discovery Channel’s 30th annual Shark Week is finally here!

Published July 19, 2018

Sharks are among the most jaw-some animals on the planet. There are more than 500 species of sharks swimming through the Earth’s oceans and waterways, and they come in a stunning variety of shapes and sizes.

Zebra shark swimming

Sharks can vary in physical appearance, in color—anywhere from pink to gray to tan to black—and in pattern. Zebra sharks, residents of our Blacktip Reef exhibit, have particularly distinctive patterns. As juveniles, they are black with yellow stripes, and as they age, they become tan with dark spots. The thresher shark also comes to mind when discussing unique shark appearances because of its extremely long tail lobe (also known as a caudal fin), which can make up half of its body length! This unusual tail is not only used for swimming, but also for stunning its prey.

The common perception is that all sharks are large, but there is actually a wide range of sizes among sharks. The smallest shark in the world is the rarely-seen dwarf lanternshark, reaching a maximum length of about 8 inches. In comparison, the largest shark in the world is the whale shark, reaching upwards of 45 feet and weighing 20 tons!

While many sharks, such as white sharks, are apex predators at the top of the aquatic food chain, some sharks, such as leopard sharks, are mid-level predators further down the food chain.

Sharks inhabit a variety of ecosystems. Species like oceanic whitetip sharks live and feed in the open waters away from shore, while bonnethead sharks, lemon sharks and grey reef sharks are coastal animals found near shore in relatively shallow waters. Some species, such as nurse sharks, bamboo sharks, and wobbegong sharks, are bottom dwellers, catching their prey on the ocean floor.

Sharks can be found in every ocean in the world and on the coastline of every continent. One species, the Greenland shark, even lives in the icy waters of the Arctic! Sharks are not just found in oceans—certain species, including bull sharks, can be found in freshwater rivers and lakes. There are even sharks in our local Chesapeake Bay, including most of the species found in our Shark Alley exhibit!

Tasseled wobbegong close up

A unique favorite here at the National Aquarium is the well-camouflaged tasselled wobbegong. While tasselled wobbegongs are truly sharks, they might not be easily recognized as such. Their wide, flattened bodies cause them to often be mistaken for rays, but unlike rays, their gills are located on the sides of their heads, not underneath. Their patterns of dark lines and splotches that adorn their skin, along with the frilly structures around their mouths, allow them to camouflage on the ocean floor while waiting for their next meal!

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