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Tiger shark

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Tiger Shark
Temporal range: 50–0Ma
Early Eocene to Present
Conservation status

Near Threatened ( IUCN 3.1)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chondrichthyes
Subclass: Elasmobranchii
Order: Carcharhiniformes
Family: Carcharhinidae
Genus: Galeocerdo
J. P. Müller & Henle, 1837
Species: G. cuvier
Binomial name
Galeocerdo cuvier
Péron & Lesueur, 1822
Tiger shark range

Squalus cuvier Peron and Lessueur, 1822
Galeocerdo tigrinus Müller and Henle, 1837

The tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier, is a species of requiem shark and the only member of the genus Galeocerdo. Commonly known as sea tiger, the tiger shark is a relatively large macropredator, capable of attaining a length of over 5 m (16 ft). It is found in many tropical and temperate waters, and it is especially common around central Pacific islands. Its name derives from the dark stripes down its body which resemble a tiger's pattern, which fade as the shark matures.

The tiger shark is a solitary, mostly nocturnal hunter. Its diet includes a wide variety of prey, ranging from crustaceans, fish, seals, birds, squid, turtles, and sea snakes to dolphins and even other smaller sharks. The tiger shark is considered a near threatened species due to finning and fishing by humans.

While the tiger shark is considered to be one of the sharks most dangerous to humans, the attack rate is low according to researchers. The tiger is second on the list of number of recorded attacks on humans, with the great white shark being first. They often visit shallow reefs, harbors and canals, creating the potential for encounter with humans.


The shark was first described by Peron and Lessueur in 1822, and was given the name Squalus cuvier. Müller and Henle in 1837 renamed it Galeocerdo tigrinus. The genus, Galeocerdo, is derived from the Greek galeos which means shark and the Latin cerdus which means the hard hairs of pigs. It is often colloquially called the man-eater shark.

The tiger shark is a member of the order Carcharhiniformes. Members of this order are characterized by the presence of a nictitating membrane over the eyes, two dorsal fins, an anal fin, and five gill slits. It is the largest member of the Carcharhinidae family, commonly referred to as requiem sharks. This family includes some other well-known sharks, such as the blue shark, lemon shark and bull shark.

Range and habitat

The tiger shark is often found close to the coast, mainly in tropical and subtropical waters throughout the world. Along with the great white shark, Pacific sleeper shark, Greenland shark and sixgill shark, the tiger shark is among the largest extant sharks. Its behaviour is primarily nomadic, but is guided by warmer currents, and it stays closer to the equator throughout the colder months. It tends to stay in deep waters that line reefs, but it does move into channels to pursue prey in shallower waters. In the western Pacific Ocean, the shark has been found as far north as Japan and as far south as New Zealand. A Tiger Shark tagged in the Caribbean has been tracked migrating Cape Cod, although Tiger Sharks are a tropical species during the summer the warm Gulf Stream brings the coast of Cape Cod to within the extreme north of its range.

Tiger sharks can be seen in the Gulf of Mexico, North American beaches and parts of South America. It is also commonly known in the Caribbean Sea. Other locations where tiger sharks are seen include Africa, People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Certain tiger sharks have been recorded at depths just shy of 900 metres (3,000 ft) but some sources claim they move into shallow water normally thought to be too shallow for a species of its size. A recent study showed the average tiger shark would be recorded at 350 metres (1,100 ft), making it uncommon to see tiger sharks in shallow water. However, tiger sharks in Hawaii have been observed in depths as shallow as 10 ft and regularly observed in coastal waters at depths of 20 to 40 ft. They often visit shallow reefs, harbors and canals, creating the potential for encounters with humans.

The tiger shark is known as tababa in Kiribati and Tuvaluan. They have been observed feeding in the tidal passages between the lagoon and ocean in Tarawa, Kiribati. Spring tides bring in plankton or animalcule, which attract small soft-shell crabs, which attract sardines, which attract the grey mullet, which attract the blue-backed trevally (rereba), which then attract the tiger shark (tababa).

Anatomy and appearance

Profile photo of shark, accompanied by remora, swimming just above a sandy seafloor
Juvenile tiger shark in the Bahamas


One of the largest sharks living today, the tiger shark commonly attains a length of 3–4.2 m (9.8–13.8 ft) and weighs around 385–635 kg (850–1,400 lb). Sometimes, an exceptionally large male tiger shark can grow up to 4.5 m (15 ft). Females are larger, and exceptionally big ones can reportedly measure over 5 m (16 ft). While on average smaller and, due to a more streamlined, slender build, typically weighing less, the largest tiger sharks can rival great white shark in length. According to FishBase, the tiger shark can grow up to 7.5 m (25 ft) in length and 807.4 kg (1,780 lb) in weight. Per Guinness World Records, one female specimen caught off Australia reportedly measured 5.5 m (18 ft) long and weighed an exceptional 1,524 kg (3,360 lb), although her weight is thought to have boasted by her pregnant state at the time. A female caught in 1957 reportedly measured 7.4 m (24 ft) and weighing 3,110 kg (6,900 lb), although this very outsized shark is not known to have been confirmed.


The skin of a tiger shark can typically range from blue to light green with a white or light yellow underbelly. The advantage of this is that when it is hunting for its prey, when prey looks at the shark from above, the shark will be camouflaged since the water below is darker. And when prey is below the shark and looks up, of course because of the sun, it is lighter so that the light underbelly will also camouflage the shark. Dark spots and stripes are most visible in young sharks and fade as the shark matures. Its head is somewhat wedge-shaped, which makes it easy to turn quickly to one side. They have small pits on the snout which hold electro-receptors called the ampullae of Lorenzini which enable them to detect electric fields, including the weak electrical impulses generated by prey,which helps them to hunt. Tiger sharks also have a sensory organ called a lateral line which extends on their flanks down most of the length of their sides. The primary role of this structure is to detect minute vibrations in the water. These adaptations allow the tiger shark to hunt in darkness and detect hidden prey.

A reflective layer behind the tiger shark's retina called the tapetum lucidum allows light-sensing cells a second chance to capture photons of visible light, enhancing vision in low light conditions. A tiger shark generally has long fins to provide lift as the shark maneuvers through water, while the long upper tail provides bursts of speed. Tiger sharks normally swim using small body movements. Its high back and dorsal fin act as a pivot, allowing it to spin quickly on its axis, though the shark's dorsal fins are distinctively close to its tail.

Its teeth are specialized to slice through flesh, bone, and other tough substances such as turtle shells. Like most sharks, however, its teeth are continually replaced by rows of new teeth.


Tiger shark jaws

The tiger shark is an apex predator and has a reputation for eating anything. Young tiger sharks are found to prey largely on small fishes as well as various small jellyfishes, cephalopods and other mollusks. Around the time they attain 2.3 m (7.5 ft), or near sexual maturity, their prey selection expands considerably and much larger animals become regular prey. Numerous fish, crustaceans, sea birds, sea snakes, marine mammals (e.g. bottlenose dolphins, spotted dolphins, dugongs, seals and sea lions), and sea turtles (including the three largest species: the green, the leatherback turtle and the loggerhead turtles) are regularly eaten by adult tiger sharks. The tiger shark also eats other sharks (including adult sandbar sharks), as well as rays, and will even eat conspecifics.

Due to high risk of predatory attacks, dolphins often avoid regions inhabited by tiger sharks. Tiger sharks may also attack injured or ailing whales and prey upon them. A group was documented attacking and killing an ailing humpback whale in 2006 near Hawaii. The tiger shark also scavenges on dead whales. In one such documented incident, they were observed scavenging on a whale carcass alongside great white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias.

The broad, heavily calcified jaws and nearly terminal mouth, combined with robust, serrated teeth, enable the tiger shark to take on these large prey. In addition, excellent eyesight and acute sense of smell enable it to react to faint traces of blood and follow them to the source. The ability to pick up low-frequency pressure waves enables the shark to advance towards an animal with confidence, even in murky water. The shark circles its prey and studies it by prodding it with its snout. When attacking, the shark often eats its prey whole, although larger prey are often eaten in gradual large bites and finished over time.

Notably, terrestrial mammals, including horses, goats, sheep, dogs, cats and rats, are fairly common in the stomach contents of tiger sharks around the coasts of Hawaii. While most are likely scavenged carcasses, a few may be ambushed in a similar method to the rare tiger shark attack on a human. Because of its aggressive and indiscriminate feeding style, it often mistakenly eats inedible objects, such as automobile license plates, oil cans, tires, and baseballs.

Swimming efficiency and stealth

All tiger sharks generally swim slowly, which, combined with cryptic coloration, may make them difficult for prey to detect them in some habitats. They are especially well camouflaged against dark backgrounds. Despite their sluggish appearance, tiger sharks are one of the strongest swimmers of the carcharhinid sharks. Once the shark has come close, a speed burst allows it to reach the intended prey before it can escape.


Males reach sexual maturity at 2.3 to 2.9 m (7.5 to 9.5 ft) and females at 2.5 to 3.5 m (8.2 to 11 ft). Females mate once every 3 years. They breed by internal fertilization. The male inserts one of his claspers into the female's genital opening ( cloaca), acting as a guide for the sperm. The male uses its teeth to hold the female still during the procedure, often causing the female considerable discomfort. Mating in the Northern Hemisphere generally takes place between March and May, with birth between April and June the following year. In the Southern Hemisphere, mating takes place in November, December, or early January. The tiger shark is the only species in its family that is ovoviviparous; its eggs hatch internally and the young are born live when fully developed.

The young develop inside the mother's body for up to 16 months. Litters range from 10 to 80 pups. A newborn is generally 51 centimetres (20 in) to 76 centimetres (30 in) long. This shark typically reaches maturity at lengths of 2 to 3 m (6.6 to 9.8 ft). It is unknown how long tiger sharks live, but they can live longer than 12 years.

Dangers and conservation

Photo of shark hung by its tail on the shore
A large tiger shark caught in Kaneʻohe Bay, Oʻahu in 1966

Although shark attacks are a relatively rare phenomenon, the tiger shark is responsible for a large percentage of fatal attacks and is regarded as one of the most dangerous shark species. They are often found in river estuaries and harbors, as well as shallow water close to shore, where they are likely to encounter humans. The tiger shark also dwells in river mouths and other runoff-rich water. On average, three to four shark attacks occur per year in Hawaii, and most attacks are not fatal. This attack rate is surprisingly low considering thousands of people swim, surf and dive in Hawaiian waters every day. A tiger shark attack made headlines in October, 2003, when (then 13-year-old) American surfer Bethany Hamilton lost her arm near her shoulder. A large tiger shark was killed and hung, and later measured; based on its size and bite pattern, it was presumed to be the shark which attacked Hamilton.

Between 1959 and 1976, 4,668 tiger sharks were culled in an effort to protect the tourism industry. Despite these efforts, attacks did not decrease. It is illegal to feed sharks in Hawaii, and interaction with them, such as cage diving, is discouraged. South African shark behavioralist and shark diver, Mark Addison, demonstrated divers could interact and dive with them outside of a shark cage in 2007 Discovery Channel special.

The tiger shark is captured and killed for its fins, flesh, and liver. It is caught regularly in target and nontarget fisheries. Several populations evidently have declined where they have been heavily fished, but in general, they do not face a high risk of extinction. Continued demand, though, especially for fins, may result in further declines in the future. Tiger sharks are considered a near threatened species due to excessive finning and fishing by humans according to International Union for Conservation of Nature.

While shark fin has very few nutrients, shark liver has a high concentration of vitamin A which is used in the production of vitamin oils. In addition, the tiger shark is captured and killed for its distinct skin, as well as by big game fishers.

In 2010, Greenpeace International added the tiger shark to its seafood red list, which is a list of fish commonly sold around the world, and which have a very high risk of being sourced from unsustainable fisheries.


The tiger shark is considered to be sacred na ʻaumakua (ancestor spirits) by some native Hawaiians who think their eyeballs have special seeing powers. This aligns with the general known facts about sharks and their highly developed senses.

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