Sharks – the science behind the fear

From the creatures of our ocean voyaging nightmares, to the infamous villains of Hollywood blockbusters, the shark has chomped out a name for itself as one of nature’s most fearsome beasts – a stigma that they just cannot seem to shake.
In reality, these ocean dwelling brutes are not the mindless killers that we’ve cut them out to be – rather, they are just big fish, with sharp teeth and an unfathomable appetite that keep the rest of our oceans in check.
But is our fear of sharks really irrational, or is there some rational, scientific explanation?

Why fears don’t always match the facts

It’s human nature to irrationalise fear and blow multiple, mundane risks way out of proportion – scared of chickens (alektorophobia), the sun (heliophobia), or even your own hair (chaetophobia), there’s a phobia to diagnose just about every irrational foible.
But sharks, surely the fear behind these dangerous, marine predators isn’t irrational? Blake Chapman, shark expert at the University of Queensland, Australia, would certainly agree.
“Due to fear, the potential damage sharks are able to inflict on us, and our complete inability to control these animals, they do tend to get a bad reputation,” Chapman says. “The neural response of fear has changed little since humans first evolved, and so many easily learned fears relate to risks that would have been highly significant to our early ancestors. Predators is a notable example.”
Humans, who evolved many hundred of millions of years after sharks (sharks in fact older than just about every other vertebrate on the planet), evolved with a focus on intelligence – rather than the exceptional predatory instincts of a shark. With intelligence, came conscience, and with conscience came fear.

The feeling of fear, as described by Chapman, “is highly conserved in the mammalian lineage and is largely a subconscious response,” – if we see a big, scary animal, we’re going to up sticks and leg it out of there. This is made even worse when in the ocean, humans – quite literally – way out of their depth.
Many sharks, and the infamous Great White in particular, fit this scary predator bill perfectly – row upon row of dagger-like teeth that can tear through prey in an instant, not to mention an electromagnetic superpower which they use to great effect to scope out their next tasty bite.
But not all sharks fit this merciless killer stereotype, and neither, arguably, do Great Whites themselves. There are more than 465 known species of shark, ranging from the 7-inch pygmy shark and aquarium-bred Bala shark, to the colossal 60-foot-long whale shark – neither of which have teeth any bigger than yours or mine.

Even Great Whites, who can have up to 3,000 teeth at any one time, will often turn their nose when you dangle your digits in the water. Great Whites love fat, preferring to hunt baby seals which can often have up to 50% fat content (comparable to a chunk og Camembert cheese, if you’re interested). While humans come in all shapes and sizes, none of us quite matching the tasty fat content of a seal – even if a shark takes a nip, they’ll recognise we aren’t food quite quickly and soon be on their way – this is why it is so rare for anyone to actually be consumed by a Great White.
We often lump the term ‘shark’ into only a select few, scary species – Great White, Bull, Tiger and Hammerhead – leaving the other 461 known species as blurry, ‘is it safe?’, ‘will it eat me?’, enigmas. There are many, more shocking things, likely to kill you than a shark – a falling coconut, a carelessly popped champagne cork or toppling vending machines all claiming more lives than sharks, on average, a year.

David Ropeik, author of ‘How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fear Don’t always Match the Facts’ sums up our rational, scientific fear surrounding sharks perfectly – explaining how it’s the fear of simply losing control that we unknowingly project onto – and then confuse with – sharks themselves.
“The idea of being munched on by an animal that is in control is another factor…it’s the nature of the experience, and not the agent, per se.”
Blame Hollywood
With the release of Jaws in the summer of 1975, sharks quickly went from scary creatures of the deep, to every child’s and adult’s worst nightmare. Perpetuated by the release of a second, third and even fourth film (did Jaws: The Revenge even make it to the big screen?) – the fear surrounding sharks only grew and grew.

Spreading fear so quickly, with real consequent effects, probably wasn’t the aim of Hollywood and other large film producers of the time – but it would be difficult for them to shy away from the fact they created a generation of people terrified by sharks, leading to a worldwide witch-hunt of the majestic ocean-dwellers.

Maybe they’re not so bad after all

Despite Hollywoods efforts to vilify them, sharks are a lot more than just an ugly face and numerous rows of menacing teeth – the ocean dwellers actually doing a lot more for the planet than we perhaps realise.
Not only do they keep oceanic food chains and ecosystems in check, they also sweep the seafloor of dead carcasses – keeping the carbon cycle in perfect harmony for other sea creatures. Even closer to home, current research into sharks is shedding light into new cancer treatments, and potentially even limb regeneration.

Are these torpedo-like seafarers the menacing creatures you first thought they were before reading this article? No, if any-fin they should be your newfound favourite, jaw-some darlings of nature.

Will NewtonComment