Editor's note: The full version of this story was originally published in 2016 as part of a series related to Shark Week that year. As we start to anticipate this year's Shark Week in July (start the countdown!) — and as we head out to the beach this summer — it's the perfect time to refresh our knowledge of sharks.
Sharks aren’t exactly the voracious predators we often fear, say FIU biologists. In fact, shark attacks on humans are rare.
The rarity of these events makes it difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons why sharks attack humans. But FIU biologist Yannis Papastamatiou says a variety of reasons could be to blame, depending on the nature of the attack.
“It could be defense if the shark feels threatened. It could be an investigation of an unknown object,” he said. “Very rarely, it could be for feeding.”
In some cases, according to Mike Heithaus, executive dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education and a marine ecologist, a shark may actually mistake a human for a more traditional type of prey, such as a seal or sea lion. But Heithaus and Papastamatiou point out that no one, other than the shark, really knows what a shark is thinking when it attacks a human.
“We know that most sharks that bite a human rarely consume their victim, so they don’t seem to like us as prey,” said Papastamatiou, who uses acoustic and satellite technologies to study black tip reef sharks, leopard sharks, great whites, tiger sharks, stingrays and more.
Contrary to popular belief, sharks are much more docile than their pop culture persona. Studying the ecological role of large sharks both in Australian and Florida waters, Heithaus currently conducts research using cutting-edge technology, including cameras worn by animals, to unravel the lives of hard-to-study marine creatures from whales and dolphins to sharks, seals and turtles.
“Though they are fascinating creatures, sharks actually lead pretty boring lives,” Heithaus said. “Footage captured by FIU researchers from cameras attached to the backs of sharks proves they mostly swim all day doing nothing in particular. Some, like nurse sharks, spend a lot of their time lying around.”
The reality is sharks are much more threatened by human activity than the other way around. FIU research suggests as many as 100 million sharks are taken from the oceans every year, a pace sharks cannot keep up with. This is leading to population declines that are cause for concern among scientists worldwide. To advance conservation efforts, Heithaus and a team of international researchers recently conducted a global survey of shark and ray populations called Global FinPrint.
“Sharks are impressive animals with complex behaviors,” Heithaus said. “Recently, we have begun to find that sharks have personalities. Some individuals are bold. Others are less so. They are able to modify their behavior in response to changes in their environment, and some species have been taught to navigate mazes. We are still learning much more about the behavior and cognitive abilities of sharks.”
FIU ranked among top universities in the world for impact by Times Higher Education
Based on the United Nations criteria for the Sustainable Development Goals, FIU recently ranked No. 2 in the world for impact on Life Below Water, No. 7 for impact on Clean Water and Sanitation and No. 12 for impact on Life on Land. Overall, FIU was ranked among the top 100 universities in the world and No. 7 in the United States for impact in the 2023 Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. Learn more.