What Do Sharks Do in a Hurricane? Answers to Our Goofy Shark Questions.

Slate’s animal blog.
July 3 2014 9:48 AM

What Do Sharks Do in a Hurricane?

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If you are directly in front of a hammerhead, can it see you?

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

We here at Slate were talking about sharks not long ago and realized we had a lot of goofy questions. Shark conservation graduate student David Shiffman was kind enough to answer them.

What do sharks do in a hurricane? Do they clear out of the path?

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Yup, they move to deeper water offshore where the effects of the storm won’t reach them. Aside from that little detail, SharkNado was basically 100 percent factually accurate.

This is really stupid, but speaking of hurricanes: Is it really dangerous to be a shark/fish in the middle of a thunderstorm? Do they get struck by lightning a lot?

I’m not aware of a single confirmed case of a shark being fatally struck by lightning, though it certainly could have happened if a shark was unlucky enough to be near the surface at the exact moment of a strike. The energy from a lightning strike doesn’t spread too far through the ocean, though—if you’re more than a few feet away, you’re probably fine. I’ve been in the water about 100 feet away from a lightning strike and didn’t feel a thing, though I did have to change my wetsuit right after this experience.

Always been curious about the hammerhead. If you are directly in front of it, can it see you? Does it bump into stuff a lot?

Hammerheads actually have amazing vision! Because of the way sharks move, their head doesn’t remain stationary.  When their head moves back and forth, they can see almost 360 degrees! I’ve had sharks bump into me before, but it isn’t because they don’t see me there.

When sharks are hungry, is it, like, an emergency?

On average, something like half of all sharks caught for “stomach content analysis” studies have had completely empty stomachs, and they were doing just fine (although they did go for a baited hook). Some sharks can actually go weeks at a time without eating if they have a big meal.

Also, is it true that Sharks don’t like the taste of human blood? If so, why do they full-on mangle people before deciding they're actually inedible? Are they stubborn? Mean-spirited?

Most shark bites last only a few seconds (if that), and most don’t even require stitches. Serious injuries and fatalities from shark bites result from the fact that a shark’s teeth are so sharp that even a brief interaction can cause serious damage to a human.

Sharks lose a lot of teeth. What is the going rate with the Chondrichthyes tooth fairy?

When I was a kid, I got “one of everything” from the tooth fairy—a penny, a nickel, a dime, a quarter, and a one-dollar bill. If we were using that rate, many species of sharks would be able to buy a decent used car.

How true or exaggerated is that whole thing about how sharks can never stop swimming?

It varies by species. Sharks need water passing over their gills for them to breathe. Some, including nurse sharks, can pump water over their gills. I once saw a nurse shark not move for 5 straight days. Other species need to be swimming pretty much constantly in order to breathe.

Do sharks feel the same way about those shark diving cages that we feel about clamshell packaging?

Sharks can detect electric fields, and some kinds of metal in seawater generate electric fields. There’s some anecdotal evidence of sharks biting boat engines and even shark cages. But it’s probably because of the electric field they generate, not because they’re trying to get at the human chum inside.

Do sharks have a sense of humor?

With a name like “wobbegong,” you better learn to laugh at yourself early in life, or high school will be no fun at all. Seriously though, while sharks are much smarter than most people think and are capable of a variety of complex behaviors and social interactions, they don’t have emotions in the same way we do.

What do male and female sharks find sexy?

As I wrote in “50 Shades of Grey Reef Shark,” shark sex is extraordinarily violent. Sharks don’t spawn like other fish; they copulate like mammals do. This means the female has to be held still relative to the male. Because sharks don’t have hands, the males use their mouths, which are full of sharp teeth. There isn’t a lot of romance and consensual behavior going on.

Do sharks ever change facial expression? Or is that cold stare the only face they can make?

Different species have really different looks to their faces, which people anthropomorphize. Individual sharks can move their eyes and open or close their mouths, but in general, they don’t really change expressions much. They do have some body language, though—tail slapping at the surface has been observed in some species, as has arching the back much like an angry cat.

Could you share some very useful info about where to punch a shark? (The eyes! The snout! The gills!)

Punching underwater doesn’t really work. Try it without a shark sometime. Elderly people do this in the pool for exercise, but that’s about the only practical use of that motion.

David Shiffman is a Ph.D. student at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami. He writes for Southern Fried Science. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.