Modern history

The Biter with the Jagged Teeth

The shark's life began with a male and female entwined. Other fish reproduced without touching, but for the shark's parents there had been courtship, albeit in its most rudimentary form—chase. In ancient times Aristotle was struck by the intimacy of shark mating, but the union of great whites has never been witnessed by a human being. Scientists can reconstruct the moment only based on their understanding of other sharks.

Somewhere in the Atlantic, male and female circled each other with supreme grace. The male grabbed the pectoral or side fin of a female and the brutal choreography began. Each would have been at least twelve to fourteen years old to be of sexual maturity—huge, practiced predators. The male, equipped with two claspers, or pseudo-penises, inserted one sideways into the female's cloaca, the reproductive opening. If there is implied intimacy in union, the tenderness ended there; biting and slashing left the female bleeding like the victim of an attack. Her remarkably tough skin protected her from some of the worst of the biting during intercourse.

The union produces something rare in the ocean: the embryo of Carcharodon carcharias, named from the Greek harcaros (teeth), karcharias (shark), sometimes translated as “the biter with the jagged teeth.” The embryo shared a family tree, a phylum, and a subphylum with Homo sapiens. The shark was an individual, nurtured in a womb, attached to its mother by an umbilical cord. Like man, the developing cells of the embryo differentiated into a symmetrical form, vertebrae, a brain, a jaw, intestines, dermal skin; from the same layer of embryonic tissue that produced the dermal skin arose distinct teeth. The shark shared the womb with eight to ten other “pups,” all attached to individual umbilical cords, all being nurtured by their mother. During gestation, the shark's brain triggered a simple equation: life=food=life. The life was very close, and the shark attacked—killed and fed, devouring its mother's fertilized and unfertilized eggs. So the shark began life as a kind of in utero cannibal. Twelve to fourteen months after conception, it emerged having won the most elemental of sibling rivalries—the privilege to be born.

The shark began not, as most fish did, as a helpless egg, one of millions adrift in the sea to be plucked by predators, a good-luck-to-you discharge, a primitive lottery drawing for life. It came out of the womb four to five feet long, fifty to eighty-five pounds, hunting. The shark had no air bladder for buoyancy, like most fish, so it had to keep moving, moving and killing and eating, or it would sink to the depths and die.

There was no playful puppyhood, no more nurturing from parents, no innocent gamboling with brothers and sisters. The newborn shark fled them as one would an enemy—fled its mother, especially. Her instinct was to eat the nearest food source. Nature pumped her full of hormones that diminished her appetite temporarily. Mother's parting gift to her pups was to give them a brief window of escape before she devoured them.

The waters off Long Island were cool, to the shark's liking. Even to scientists in the twenty-first century, the birthing of Carcharodon carcharias is veiled in mystery. Yet the great white was probably born off Montauk, as early as 1908, one of the few places scientists have seen populations of pups.

In the Atlantic, off the eastern tip of Long Island, the fish moved at the speed of a walking man, so slowly it seemed hardly to be swimming at all. The slow speed was vastly deceptive. When aroused the fish was alarmingly quick, capable of speeds of perhaps thirty miles per hour. It darted and fed gluttonously on small fish and squid in the early months, but grew slowly. Its pyramidal head carried rows and backup rows of smallish teeth—baby teeth. Speed was its chief defense at this size, when the shark was young and vulnerable to larger predators. Like a mackerel or tuna, it flew on the power of a sickle-shaped tail, but unlike them its skin was covered with thousands of tiny sharp denticles, miniature teeth that aided speed and stealth. The navy tried to emulate this design for its submarines but was unable to duplicate it. Speedo, the swimsuit manufacturer, succeeded in mimicking the denticles in its full-body suits to give swimmers added speed. But there were important differences. On the shark, the denticles were like razor-sharp sandpaper. A man who brushed against them would be instantly bloodied. The baby fish was a missile of teeth.

As winter approached, the waters south of Long Island gradually cooled. As a large predator, the great white needed a huge home range to find big prey, and cooler waters expanded its range. Soon the shark began to migrate south as far as the cooler waters and available prey would take it—in the winter, as far south as Florida. Come late spring and summer, the warm, wet season in the subtropics, the shark, preferring cooler water, headed north.

All its movements were in shallow waters now, near shore. As a full-grown adult, huge and unassailable, the great white would be capable of open-ocean migrations—in the deep where prey was scarce—capable of crossing between continents in search of new hunting territory. Yet now it stayed near shore, near familiar and abundant prey. The shoreline was its world, the natural habitat of Carcharodon carcharias. The young shark would range out in waters as deep as sixty to eighty feet and swim into waters four feet deep—or shallower, if it was chasing something. It chased seals up on the rocks. The young shark was equipped to follow its prey wherever it fled, almost all the way up onto shore.

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