When I was a deck hand and educator on the schooner Adventuress, the quickest way to get grown-ups interested in a marine-wildlife talk was to talk about sex. Mussel sex, crab sex, anemone sex, it didn’t matter; the adults would drop all conversation and scurry over to the tank to listen. Barnacle sex was an especially big crowd-pleaser– not only do barnacles reproduce sexually, they are hermaphroditic and are thus all endowed with the largest penis-to-body-size ratio on the planet. As we used to say on the boat, “that’s an inch and a half to be proud of.”
So it makes sense to me to begin my first post about great white sharks (or simply ‘white sharks,’ as scientists call them) by talking about how they have sex. I’m into sharks these days as I chase a story idea, and over the last few weeks I’ve come across stunning facts and footage of these incredible, gorgeous, and terrifying predators. My top five white shark sex facts? Here we go!:
1) White sharks reproduce sexually. Male sharks have two external organs called ‘claspers’ that are used to deliver sperm into the female shark during reproduction. During mating, the clasper unfurls and “opens like an umbrella” to secure delivery until the male is finished.
2) White sharks seem to be rather rough lovers. The females often have deep scars around their head and gills, probably from courtship and mating. The skin on a female’s back is much thicker than a male’s–probably to withstand this abuse–and the females grow to be larger than males (an adaptation known as sexual dimorphism).
3) White sharks are ovoviviparous; they hatch from eggs inside of their mother’s uterus and continue to grow until birth. This means that they probably participate in intrauterine cannibalism, and EAT their weaker, would-be siblings before birth. Yikes.
4) We think white sharks have between 2 and 7 pups, and have an 11-14 month gestation period. Only one pregnant female white shark has ever been caught, and she and her pups were chopped up for chum by local fisherman before scientists or the press caught on.
5) No human has ever witnessed white shark sex. Our best guess is based on observing other shark mating behavior, but really, nobody knows for sure. French-maid outfits? Black leather dorsal-fin collars? Gary Larson can draw whatever he pleases.
That’s it for now on white sharks from me. Back to my research and my roughs– expect to see more drawings over the next few weeks and months as I dig in. Also, a big shout out to Chris at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center for making my week! Chris was about to draw my blood for a test and then recognized my name from reading my blog and my Caterpillar stories. He still drew my blood, of course, but the conversation made my day. Thank you, Chris!