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Do all sharks eat meat?

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Not all sharks eat as spectacularly as this great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) breaching the water as it catches a seal off of Seal Island, False Bay, Simonstown, Western Cape, South Africa, some are more the scavenger-type.
Not all sharks eat as spectacularly as this great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) breaching the water as it catches a seal off of Seal Island, False Bay, Simonstown, Western Cape, South Africa, some are more the scavenger-type.

By Blaise Jones

Yes! All sharks are carnivores. No sharks actively eat plants. The closest to a plant-eating shark we can get are the filter feeders, like whale and basking sharks. These sharks eat the tiny animals that make up plankton and as a result they end up swallowing tons of algae. However, while all sharks are carnivores, they all do not eat the same things. Many sharks specialize in hunting specific types of prey.

Opportunity Calling

The No. 1 thing on a sharks menu are small fish. In fact, bony fish make up between 70 to 80 percent of a shark’s diet. However, as a rule, sharks are opportunistic hunters, meaning that if they think they can make an easy meal out of something, they’re going to try. This leads to certain species of shark having very odd appetites.

A Family Meal

Some species of shark specialize in specific prey items. Hammerhead sharks like to keep hunting in the family, and have specializations that allow them to easily hunt their close cousins, the stingray. Those oddly shaped heads are used both to detect stingrays hiding beneath the sand and to pin them down on the bottom while the low-slung mouth tears the fins off the unfortunate ray.

Round scars on the flank of a stranded female Gray's beaked whale (Mesoplodon grayi), probably from cookie-cutter shark bites. Photo credit: Avenue.
Round scars on the flank of a stranded female Gray’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon grayi), probably from cookie-cutter shark bites. Photo credit: Avenue.

Sharks vs the U.S. Navy

Some sharks have appetites that far outweigh their size. The diminutive cookiecutter shark, maxing out at about only 20 inches, hunts the largest animals on earth, as well as U.S. Military hardware sometimes. Cookiecutter sharks get their name from the distinct circular bite mark they leave behind, as if someone had taken a cookie cutter to a whale to make delicious blubber cookies.

Cookiecutter sharks used to be a problem for deep diving submarines, because the ambitious sharks would bite off chunks of the rubber lining that covered sonar equipment. When this was discovered, the U.S. Navy quickly started replacing the rubber with fiberglass, and not even the feisty cookiecutter shark wanted a piece of that.

Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright…

However, there might be one shark out there that would want a mouthful of fiberglass. The tiger shark is infamous for many reasons, one of which being its odd eating habits Tiger sharks redefine what it means to be an “opportunist.” While tiger sharks are especially adept at hunting sea turtles, and have specialized teeth and hunting behaviors that aid them in their pursuits, they’ll eat most any animal they can. Tiger sharks have been observed eating bony fish, shellfish, other sharks, eels, seabirds, seals, dolphins, small whales, squid, octopus, and sea snakes. 

Steel-Plated Stomachs

However, what really sets tiger sharks apart is the habit of eating things that were never meant to be digested. Tiger sharks live in areas with very few prey items. This has led them to becoming extremely open-minded as to what qualifies as “food.” Tiger sharks have been found with license plates, tin cans, shoes, plastic bags, bottles, baseballs, bags of coal, potatoes, car tires, boat parts, deer antlers, oil cans, and in one case an entire wooden war drum inside their stomachs. Basically, if it catches a tiger shark’s attention, it’s going to try and eat it. However, if the tiger shark eats something that doesn’t agree with it, it as a unique way of soothing its aching stomach. They will actually vomit up their stomachs and turn them inside out, dumping anything inside.

Sources

“Sharks! The Mysterious Killers” by Downs Matthews

“Sharks: The Animal Answer Guide” by Gene Helfman and George H. Burgess

“The Encyclopedia of Sharks” by Steve Parker

 

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