The tiger shark is the fourth-largest shark on the planet, weighing up to 1300 pounds and growing up to 15 feet long. (Whale sharks, basking sharks, and great white sharks are the only sharks that grow in size.) Tiger sharks are not just large, but also strange: they devour garbage, give birth to large litters, and one of them was involved in Australia’s most infamous unsolved murder mystery.
1. They Look Like Swimming Garbage Dumpsters.
Tiger sharks devour a wide variety of prey, including albatrosses, venomous sea snakes, and other sharks, as well as man-made items such as paint cans, leather coats, rubber tires, and even license plates. (The scene in Jaws where Hooper pulls a Louisiana plate from a dead tiger shark’s gut is scientifically correct!)
2. They Are Not to Be Confused With Sand Tiger Sharks.
You would think the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) and the sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus) are cousins, but the latter is more closely linked to the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias).
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3. They Do Not All Have Stripes.
When you think of a tiger, you probably think of vertical stripes, but those stripes change with time. Puppies of tiger sharks have roundish grey markings that develop into stripes as they grow older. The stripes diminish beyond a certain age, and full-grown people can scarcely see them.
4. Warm Water Is Preferred by Tiger Sharks.
Tiger sharks can be found in tropical to warm temperate waters all over the world, according to a study published in Global Change Biology in March 2018. The sharks have a “Goldilocks” zone, according to the study. “Our research indicates that 22 degrees [Celsius, 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit] are neither too cold nor too hot for the animals,” said lead author Nicholas Payne to the BBC. “It’s about appropriate in terms of their ideal temperature preference.” After tracking tagged sharks near Hawaii and comparing their findings to decades of Australian fishing statistics, the scientists came to that conclusion.
5. Teeth Have Been Notched.
You’d notice teeth with dramatic notch tips that point sideways if you could pry open a tiger shark’s jaws. It’s also worth noting that the teeth on the left and right halves are mirror reflections of one another. The teeth of a tiger shark have a dual purpose: they aid in the fish’s grasping of struggling prey and can shear straight through the thickest of hides, allowing them to go after just about any prey available.
6. They Might Be the Only Sharks Who Hunt Sea Turtles on a Regular Basis.
Raine Island in the Great Barrier Reef attracts 12,000 breeding sea turtles each year, and tiger sharks, which hunt the turtles, aren’t far behind.
When a shark gets too close for comfort, a turtle may respond by tilting itself sideways, causing the top of the carapace to be perpendicular to the shark’s teeth, making it too wide to bite into. In this position, turtles would swim in tight circles around the predator, protecting the reptile’s vulnerable flanks.
According to a 2016 study, sharks tend to avoid healthy turtles in favor of sick or dying (or dead) turtles in order to conserve energy.
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7. When Tiger Sharks Are in the Area, Seagrass Seems to Benefit.
Shark Bay in Australia is home to a varied range of organisms, but it acquired its name from the 28 shark species that have been sighted there, including tigers, which are particularly prevalent.
Seagrasses form the foundation of Shark Bay’s ecosystem, providing both refuge and food for small creatures and large herbivores. However, a 2011 heatwave devastated the grasses. They’ve been slowly making a recovery since then, and scientists have observed that they develop faster in areas where tiger sharks congregate. This is most likely because sharks scare sea turtles and dugongs away from the grass. “In many cases, just being afraid of sharks is enough to maintain a marine ecosystem healthy and ready to respond to challenges,” stated ecologist Michael Heithaus in a news release.
8. Huge Litters Are Born by Tiger Sharks.
Female tiger sharks are pregnant for 14 to 16 months and have at least 10 pups, with the average number being about 30. But there are instances when they have a lot more: Females have been reported to give birth to as many as 80 puppies at once. Newborns typically weigh between six and thirteen pounds.
9. They Move South for the Winter in the Atlantic.
There’s still a lot to learn about tiger sharks’ travel habits. Female Hawaiians travel more frequently—and farther—around the island chain than males, according to seven-year research. Another study, published in Scientific Reports in 2015, looked at 24 adult tiger sharks in the Atlantic and discovered that they spent the winter months in the Caribbean and West Indies. Then, during the summer, they traveled north to the mid-Atlantic, where they spent the hottest months of the year, even going as far north as Connecticut (and far away from the coast). Nobody knows why the sharks travel that far north, although it could have something to do with the baby loggerhead turtles that live there.
10. A Murder Mystery Was Barfed Up by One Tiger Shark.
Coogee Aquarium in Sydney, Australia, was looking for a large fish to fill its newly-built pool in April 1935. Bert Hobson caught a 13-foot tiger shark for the aquarium while fishing off Coogee Beach.
At the aquarium, the shark was a tremendous hit, but it didn’t last long. It became ill seven days after arriving, vomiting up a bird, a rat, some nasty-looking brown goo—and a human arm with a rope tied around its wrist and two boxers tattooed on its forearm.
James Smith, an amateur boxer who had lately gone missing, had the same tattoo on one arm. The arm had not been bitten off but had been cut off from the remainder of Smith’s body using a knife, according to forensic research.
Smith has last seen playing cards with his longstanding partner Patrick Brady, a forger, at the Hotel Cecil in Cronulla, according to detectives. Brady swiftly became the number one suspect. A boat builder (and suspected criminal) named Reginald Holmes later informed the authorities that Brady had slain Smith in an argument. Someone shot Holmes before he could testify in court.
Brady’s attorneys maintained that a severed arm was insufficient evidence of a crime. They reasoned that Smith could still be alive somewhere—minus one limb, of course. Brady escaped with his life, which was more than can be said for the tiger shark, who died in captivity. There were no other human remains discovered during the necropsy.
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11. Tiger Sharks Have Been Known to Share Food With Crocodiles and Great Whites, but This Is Very Rare.
All types of animals are drawn out of the woodwork by bloated, decomposing whale carcasses. Carnivores that would typically avoid one other find up eating on the same deceased mammals. Two great white sharks and three tiger sharks were videotaped chewing at a sperm whale’s massive body near New South Wales, Australia, in 2015.
Witnesses have seen representatives of both species eating a Byrd’s whale carcass off the coast of South Africa years before. A humpback cadaver is picked apart by tiger sharks and saltwater crocodiles in Australian drone footage from 2017 (above). If you look attentively at the video, you can see the croc and the fish approaching within a few yards of each other.