2010/02/07

Which is the Most Frightening Apex Predator: The Great White Shark or Man?


(This post is part of a three part series which will attempt to address our relationship with sharks, why we fear them, how we can save them, and why we should!

Apex Predator- (also known as alpha, super-, or top-level predators) are predators that have virtually no predators of their own, residing at the top of their food chain. Apex predator species are often at the end of long food chains, where they have a crucial role in maintaining the health of ecosystems.

In the last month, there have been two very highly publicized and sensationalized shark attack/ fatalities. In Cape Town, South Africa on January 12th, a man named Lloyd Skinner was killed by a 'dinosaur sized' or 'gigantic' shark that is believed to have been a great white shark. In Stuart, Florida on February 3rd, a kite surfer named Stephen Howard Schafer died from injuries sustained when he was attacked by a shark that was originally reported to be a 'great white' shark who attacked in a 'multiple shark attack' or from 'a herd of sharks'.

Sharks are in the mind of most human beings to be the ultimate predator. It you ask people what animals they are frightened off, very few off the top of their heads name lions, crocodiles, etc... Sharks are the most frequently mentioned and great white sharks are the most accused and feared. Why this fact is seems to have many factors. Some factors are education/history (except for brief moments in some biology classes, the tales were hear from the past are not positive toward sharks), biology or natural survival instinct (fear of the unknown, the dark, 'monsters' and being eaten alive are all biologically ingrained fears), media (sharks are routinely stereotyped and villianized in most media sources and these sites sometimes actively push humans toward fear and loathing – remember “Jaws”) and control (as human beings we are fascinated and repulsed by things that we cannot control or will not bend to our will.) So, as long as humans have used the sea, sharks and man have had the potential to collide with negative results for either party.

So I ask the question: Who is most dangerous... the great white shark or man? To me, this question is so much more complicated that it sounds. Any apex predator is dangerous and certainly you will not find me trying to make an argument that sharks are not potentially dangerous to us. Sharks have instincts, are carnivores, and roam the seas looking for food and sometimes to breed. They have large teeth, are very 'curious' creatures, can sense even minute amounts of blood in their 'air' and are frankly quite formidable in the sense that they can move quickly and silently in their environment. The are also the larges predatory fish in the sea. The idea that they have flexible territories so more than one shark can exist (and do) in coastal areas adds to the risk. A great white shark is a predator and while humans are not their preferred food, shark attack numbers go up as more and more people enter a sharks environment. After all, we as humans need to remember that the seas are a shark's home and its domain- we are the visitors.

Humans are also an apex predator. We rule the land we inhabit. Other animals may question this fact, but few human beings could disagree with this assessment. We move other animals out of their habitats and take the space for ourselves. Humans mold the land into the image and shape they want for food, transportation, habitation. We move rivers, carve mountains, and sometimes change the entire shape and ecosystem of an area with man made inventions such as a water dam. We kill animals who live in our territories deliberately if they cause us difficulties or annoyance, and unintentionally by our daily activities. Land is our home territory and over the years (with few exceptions) we remind all others living that we are the supreme apex predator.

I believe that human beings are a much more dangerous predator than the shark for three basic reasons. The first is that the great white shark may change the borders of its personal territory, but as a species, it never pushes past certain borders and certainly has never found the way to leave it's environment and continue to live. The shark, no matter how it is feared, cannot leave the ocean so we can control how often we put ourselves into their territory. However, human beings have taken over may portions of territory previously denied to us- the air and the sea for starters. The shark has his tools or weapons- they have changed little over thousands of years. Our weapons have changed greatly over the years and allow us to kill the shark with very little risk to our own personal safety. Another concern is that great white sharks are not interested in us as human beings or predators. Human beings are too bony for a good meal and unpredictable. So while a shark may bite us out of confusion or curiosity, usually one bite is enough for the shark to find the human unappetizing and he is off to hunt something else. Humans on the other hand, are perfectly willing to hunt sharks for food or simply for 'sport'. We will carefully bait them and after tricking them into a trap, we will kill them as trophies or simply for 'a good weekend'. The last reason I believe that humans are the most dangerous predator is that we seem to be one of the few predators that is not on the 'endangered species' list. As human politicians and scientists debate global warming and growing populations, biologists and marine scientists watch with growing alarm at the rising number of animals that need to be listed as endangered or even extinct. While their voices are not quite unanimous, their voices cry that we are the animal that is causing the harm.

So this is my opinion... What is yours? Which apex predator do you think is more dangerous... us or them?

11 comments:

  1. This is such an excellent post, hope to see more. My son has a huge interest in sharks and the term 'apex predator' was on our research list. Thank you

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are very welcome! I am so glad that he enjoyed it. I do have a few more posts on sharks and will get back to them as sharks and dinosaurs are my first love. Glad that you enjoyed and please feel free to give suggestions on topics you are interested in... :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Nice post , humans are the apex predator on Earth quite likely even the solar system and beyond , to think we are the supreme predator of the universe is a long shot though :D I too am fascinated by sharks they are remarkably built by evolution to do one thing hunt and my God to they do it well but it seems that the brain can evolve past any other feature.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Aleksander- you have a good point... I may have used slightly hysterical wording. :) I have thought that evolution hasn't had sharks change much because they already fit so neatly into the natural chain. I have wondered what evolution might change if we as a species continues to plague them but doesn't wipe them out.... what changes for their survival we might cause to be created/evolved.?? Currently in Africa, many elephants are being born that grow little if no tusks... so they are more likely to survive poaching... What are your thoughts on that idea?

    ReplyDelete
  5. As I understand it, more people are killed every year by pigs than by sharks.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Dan, that is true...but people are statistically more likely to be near a pig than a shark so... :)

    ReplyDelete
  7. I think statistically statistics are incorrect, and the greatest predator ever is the Alien-Predator hybrid.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Jack Handy deep thoughts has a response for this one too. “Contrary to what most people say, the most dangerous animal in the world is not the lion or the tiger or even the elephant. It's a shark riding on an elephant's back, just trampling and eating everything they see.”

    ReplyDelete
  9. That was a very funny image... :)

    ReplyDelete
  10. Killer Whales (Orcas) prey on white sharks.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Anonymous- You are absolutely correct. They are a few other animals that kill or eat great white sharks. I guess when you talk to people and when you look at statistics, humans do not fear orcas very much. They seem easily trainable and we see them at Sea World and in films and tend to see them as alot more 'fuzzy'. Great whites do not school, have not been shown to train to do tricks very much at all and are more likely to mistake us as prey whereas that isn't nearly as common with killer whales... that said, attacks from either species are both rare... :)

    ReplyDelete