Types of sharks have existed for over 400 million years in the world’s oceans. They are far older than humans and other mammals, those cute, delicious newcomers. Sharks are older than dinosaurs and even older than trees.
Whether you have a “types of sharks” crossword puzzle to figure out, are loading a game of Shark World, or have always been interested in these toothy denizens of the deep, we’ve got you covered.
Looking to learn about nurse sharks? Fascinated by the stately blue shark? Or maybe you saw an angel shark at a public aquarium and are curious to learn more.
In this article, we will explore the many different types of sharks that exist or once existed. From the biggest shark ever that hunted whales to the oldest shark alive, there are enough fun facts about sharks to keep you occupied for a very long time.
What are the Different Types of Sharks?
Sharks are some of the most unique animals you will ever find in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. From cow sharks to reef sharks, they are fish like any other. Because sharks have many differences that make them worthy of getting to know better.
How Many Types of Sharks are there?
There are only a few sharks that capture the popular imagination, usually because they interact with us humans in some important way. But how many different types of sharks are there?
There are over 500 species to be found in the world’s oceans when counting all types of sharks known to man. Considering sharks have been around for hundreds of millions of years, this is a fairly low number.
But sharks are uniquely well adapted to the environmental niches they find themselves in. As a result, they evolve and speciate quite slowly. Sharks have mastered their predatory abilities and don’t change very much over the eons. Something we newcomers to the scene should remember.
So What Type of Animal is a Shark?
It seems obvious that sharks are fish. After all, shark gills are very obvious. Sharks also have fins and live in the water. But are sharks a type of fish like any other – or is there more to these animals than meets the eye?
Are Sharks a Type of Fish?
Sharks are fish but they are about as far removed from other fish as you can get while still being technically related to other fish. Some, like angel sharks, look nothing like a typical shark. While others like the blacktip reef shark are classic in appearance.
Sharks split off from other fish around 430 million years ago, which is a span of time that is more or less beyond our ability to comprehend. By comparison, anatomically modern humans have only been around for 500,000 to 1 million years. Sharks are ancient.
What Type of Scales do Sharks have?
Sharks don’t have scales at all. Each type of reef shark has toothy protrusions called dermal denticles. Sharks don’t have scales at all. Each type of reef shark has toothy protrusions called dermal denticles. These “skin teeth” are made of collagen, the same protein that makes up 90% of your skin.
For sharks, collagen-based dermal denticles reduce turbulence and allow them to better cut through the water.
What Types of Shark Teeth are there?
Shark teeth come in a staggering array of shapes, sizes, and forms to suit each type of shark. In fact, it would take an article twice this long to give you a true breakdown of the types of shark teeth that exist.
Some shark species that have especially strange teeth include the goblin shark. Each goblin shark has widely spaced teeth set in a strange beak.
Another is the port jackson shark. Their teeth are flat rather than sharp because the port jackson shark is a type of shark that feeds on hard-shelled prey.
Taking a Closer Look at Each Type of Shark Species
Sharks come in an incredible array of forms, from tiny species like the strange goblin sharks, frilled shark, and pacific sleeper shark.
But of all the different types of sharks out there, the biggest sharks are in some ways the most exciting. So let’s start there: what is the biggest shark? And are these giants dangerous to humans?
Whale Sharks: Gentle Giants of the Deep
It can be hard to wrap your head around just how massive fully grown whale sharks are. Each of the specimens in the Atlanta aquarium whale shark exhibit was over 14 feet long. Which is huge for carpet sharks but still very much babies compared to an adult.
The largest whale shark confirmed was 61 feet long. They are the largest nonmammalian vertebrate animals in existence; only a few types of whales are heavier and longer than they are. In fact, they are the largest shark species in the world.
What do Whale Sharks Eat?
You’d think twice about going for a swim if you knew there were 60-foot whale sharks waiting to snatch you. Their mouths are more than five feet across; plenty large enough to swallow you whole.
However, whale sharks feed exclusively on plankton and small fish. In fact, their teeth are more like a carpet of tiny prickles rather than true teeth. Because no biting or chewing is required when you filter feed on plankton thousands of times smaller than you.
More Whale Shark Facts:
Whale sharks, like most carpet sharks, are so gentle that you can swim alongside or even hitch a ride on one’s pectoral fins in many countries.
Whale sharks prefer tropical waters like the equatorial Indian Oceans and avoid places like the Mediterranean sea, where other sharks live.
Basking Sharks: the Open Water Filter Feeder
The cute basking shark species may look threatening at a casual glance. Especially when you see how wide its mouth can open. However, these mega fish are actually plankton feeders, following patches of plankton, small invertebrates, and tiny fish in open waters.
To sailors they appeared to be basking in the sun near the surface, hence their common name. In reality, these slow-moving sharks passively filter out prey from the water using their gills. Basking sharks especially love copepods. Which are far, far smaller than any human. So you have nothing to fear from a basking shark attack.
More Basking Shark Facts:
- Basking sharks were commercially hunted for a long time for their oil-rich livers. Many populations collapsed from the pressure but now most are protected.
- Most sharks prefer tropical waters but basking sharks prefer temperate to colder waters. They will also migrate with the seasons to follow rich plankton blooms.
Megalodon: Monster Shark of Prehistory
By far the most famous fossil shark is the megalodon (Otodus megalodon). It captures the imagination because it was the t-rex of the Miocene oceans.
Which, in case you aren’t familiar with geologic epochs, was not that long ago. Megalodon only went extinct around 3 million years ago, for reasons not fully understood.
Their teeth suggest that they are closely related to the great white shark. But recent studies find that the shape is more due to convergent evolution: megalodons fed on large marine mammals so they developed teeth similar to that of a great white for the job.
Megalodons are mackerel sharks and therefore distant cousins of great whites. But no one knows if they actually looked like a great white or not, as you usually see in reconstructions.
Until we find a skeleton, what megalodon actually looked like will remain a great mystery about these ancient mega sharks.
What is the Biggest Shark?
The biggest shark species ever is likely either the whale shark or the megalodon. It is hard to know for sure because shark skeletons are so extremely rare and we don’t have any megalodon skeletons to work with, only fossilized shark teeth.
But modern estimates for megalodon shark size at its maximum are somewhere between 40 and 70 feet. Which is slightly larger than the longest known whale sharks.
This makes the megalodon the biggest shark ever (that we know of). That said, the average megalodon shark size was likely “only” 30 feet long.
More Megalodon Facts
- The scientific name “megalodon” literally means “big tooth.”
- Fossil whale bones have been found with scars that suggest attacks from the megalodon monster shark.
- Besides fossil shark teeth, we even have fossil shark poop (coprolites) believed to have come from megalodon.
What is the Most Dangerous Shark?
If you are a frequent movie-goer like me then at some point you must have wondered what type of shark is Jaws? After all, the gentle whale and basking sharks certainly don’t eat people.
The megalodon monster shark would probably find humans delicious. Except it disappeared (fortunately) a few million years ago. Let’s talk about some predatory sharks.
The Dangerous Requiem Sharks
Not all requiem shark species are dangerous to people. Some, such as the silky sharks, are small fish-eaters. The silky shark can easily be mistaken for other, more aggressive species like blacktip reef sharks at a casual glance.
However, requiem sharks (also known as a reef shark or ground sharks) are opportunistic, fast, and unpredictable. For example, the whitetip reef shark is small yet is also known to bite divers on coral reefs.
Since coral reefs are a frequent place for divers to feed wild animals, it is easy for a white tip reef shark or blacktip reef shark to learn that humans equal food.
Others, like thresher sharks, tend to live in waters too deep to meet many human swimmers. This is fortunate because, with their powerful tails, thresher sharks could make short work of a person.
Freshwater Bull Shark: a Dangerous Opportunist
If you’ve ever heard of Mississippi River sharks then you were likely reading an article about the bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas).
Bull sharks are one of the rare types of sharks capable of living in not only the ocean but also brackish – and even full freshwater. At a casual glance, you might mistake one for a gentler species, like nurse sharks.
Bull sharks are one of the most dangerous types of shark because they thrive in freshwater, will swim in very shallow water, and react aggressively when they feel threatened. They may bite more people than any other shark in the world.
Jersey Shore Shark Attack
One or several bull sharks were likely responsible for the Jersey shore shark attack of 1916, where one person was injured and four people killed during a heatwave that drove thousands of people to the beaches in July.
While the movie “Jaws” uses the much more fearsome-looking (but unrelated) great white shark, these probable bull shark attacks were what inspired the film.
More Bull Shark Facts:
- Despite being some of the most dangerous types of shark, bullhead sharks are not very large. An exceptionally large female bull shark would be around 10 feet long.
- These requiem sharks return to the sea after freshwater adventures because they spawn in saltwater.
Great White Shark: Jaws, Incarnate
Few types of sharks in Hawaii, San Diego, Galveston, and other temperate and tropical oceans inspire as much fear!
Weighing nearly 2 tons when fully grown, these sharks are known to attack and eat people.
In fact, great white sharks are responsible for the largest number of recorded attacks on people. However, the majority are non-fatal.
If not People, What Do Great White Sharks Eat?
It’s believed that the majority of great white attacks are due to mistaken identity. Divers with wetsuits are targeted as well as surfers. Both look like seals, which are a food source for great white sharks.
However, humans are far less fatty compared to blubber-rich seals. Much of the time, a great white shark will take an initial bite only to leave when it finds that what it bit was far tougher and stringier than expected!
Even one bite from these monster fish can be fatal. But by seeking help from swimmers or boaters, people have a high chance of surviving an attack.
How Long Do Great White Sharks Live?
The great white shark lifespan is longer than that of most cartilaginous fish! They regularly reach up to 70 years of age, on par with us humans. Males are sexually mature at 26 years of age while females aren’t ready until they reach 33 years.
The largest great white sharks ever recorded and measured in a reliable way are between 19.5 and 21 feet long. This makes them the largest macro predatory fish in the world! Whale and basking sharks are both larger than great whites but they are plankton-feeders rather than predators!
More Great White Shark Facts:
- A baby great white shark is usually around 5 feet long at birth
- Besides seals the great white shark also eats whales; unlike other mackerel sharks, marine mammals are their favorite food
- Great white shark teeth are jagged, which reflects in their Latin genus name “Carcharodon.“
- Unlike most fish, great white sharks are warm-blooded and keep their body temperature around 15℉ hotter than the surrounding ocean water!
Tiger Shark: the Cosmopolitan Snacker
They are “cosmopolitan snacker” because they are found in most temperate and tropical waters around the world. However, tiger sharks are also infamous for eating anything. Of all the types of shark teeth, tiger shark teeth are some of the most distinctive.
They are squat, with points that face sideways and a serrated bottom. These sharp teeth are designed for crushing. Tiger sharks can even crunch lobsters and sea turtles.
However, tiger sharks have also been found with license plates, wood, dogs, and human remains inside of their stomachs…And if you watch this video, you’ll see one try and eat a camera!
There are also sand tiger sharks but they aren’t related to the tiger shark. In fact, sand tigers are relatives of nurse sharks.
Tiger Shark Size
The tiger shark species is the fourth biggest shark ever, with only the great white, basking, and whale sharks being larger. The largest specimens approach 16 to 18 feet long, with a few unconfirmed reports of giant females reaching 20 feet or more.
While great hammerhead sharks can be longer they are much slimmer than tiger sharks and weigh less.
A real tiger shark in the wild will be substantially smaller. But you should be wary of them because they will consider anything unthreatening to be potentially edible.
More Tiger Shark Facts:
- Tiger sharks get their name from the bold stripes of the youngsters. They could be mistaken for a young leopard shark. However, a tiger shark will grow far larger than a leopard shark!
- Other strange objects found in tiger shark stomachs include baseballs, rats, sea urchins, tires, horses…And unfortunately, plastic garbage.
- Tiger sharks are apex predators meaning they have few to no predators of their own..except killer whales and humans.
Oceanic Whitetip Shark: the Shipwreck Hunter
Stories of shipwrecks and pilots who go down in tropical waters often feature sharks at some point in the tale. However, the type of shark is rarely discussed. After all, not many types of sharks enjoy swimming in open water.
However, the oceanic whitetip shark is one common shark species that does. It is known to follow ships, searching for scraps as well. While they are slow-moving, oceanic whitetips are aggressive.
Since documenting deaths in the middle of the ocean is challenging, there are thousands of deaths potentially tied to this shark. Some may also be from the related blue shark and blacktip shark.
The RMS Nova Scotia was sunk by a German submarine in 1942. Out of nearly 1,000 people, less than 200 survived. Many of the survivors shared stories about people being taken by sharks.
And the oceanic whitetip shark, which reliably follows ships looking for anything that falls into the water, is a prime candidate. The broad pectoral fins of oceanic whitetips make them easy to identify.
More Oceanic Whitetip Facts:
- The oceanic whitetip shark species is now critically endangered because it is a favorite of the shark fin soup trade.
- Rather than being fast swimmers, oceanic whitetip and blue sharks cruise along until something interests them. They then put on a burst of speed to surprise potential prey.
Great Hammerhead Shark: the Alien Shark
The great hammerhead shark is one of the strangest fish with its strange eyes.
There are 9 different types of hammerhead sharks. Hammerhead species vary in size from the 3-foot long bonnethead shark (Sphyrna tiburo) to the intimidatingly large great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran).
Hammerhead sharks are also social. During the day the school with as many as 100 sharks! Does this mean that you’re in danger of being eaten by a school of hammerhead sharks if you swim in their waters?
Are Hammerhead Sharks Dangerous?
Hammerhead sharks are some of the least dangerous sharks in the sea. Only around 17 unprovoked attacks have been recorded since 1850.
But hammerhead sharks very rarely attack humans. They are hunters of sharks and stingrays. Their widespread eyes increase their ability to sense electrical activity.
All sharks have a specialized series of jelly-filled skin pores called Ampullae of Lorenzini. These pores give them the ability to detect magnetic and electrical fields in the water.
Hammerhead sharks can use their ampullae to detect stingrays trying to hide beneath the sand!
More Hammerhead Shark Facts:
- Some hammerheads, specifically the bonnethead shark, are capable of asexual reproduction, with no need for sex with a male shark!
- Bonnethead sharks also eat large amounts of seagrass and seem to be able to partially digest it. This makes it the only known omnivorous shark in the world!
- Besides being specialist shark and ray-hunters, hammerhead sharks are also cannibalistic and occasionally even eat their own young.
Shortfin Mako Shark: the Fastest Shark
Blue pointer. Bonito shark. Blue shark. Or the Cheetah of the Sea. All of these names can be applied to shortfin mako sharks, the fastest shark!
While they have been known to attack humans, it is believed that every attack was a case of mistaken identity.
Makos are a type of shark that prefers eating fast-moving aquatic prey, racing up from below to try and catch them by surprise. They are like eagles, swimming up from the depths rather than from above! Since they are blue sharks they blend into the water perfectly!
Clocking Mako Shark Speed
How fast can a shark swim? Well, shortfin mako sharks are not only fast, they are the fastest shark known! Forbes Magazine found that at top speed, a shortfin mako shark can reach 45 miles per hour.
Also, an adult shortfin mako shark can reach up to 13 feet long. They are predators of tuna, squid, marine mammals, billfish, and other very fast-moving prey.
The longfin mako shark (Isurus paucus) is a close cousin to the shortfin mako shark. While it is also fast, the longfin mako shark is more of a cruiser. It uses its long fins to glide, spending less time moving in hot pursuit of prey like the shortfin mako.
More Mako Shark Facts:
- Mako sharks are closely related to great white sharks.
- Mako sharks are also warm-blooded.
- The word “mako” comes from the Maori language, meaning either “the shark” or a shark tooth.
How Many Shark Attacks Per Year are there?
Shark attacks are not as common as you think. But recent evidence from the International Shark Attack File found that attacks have gone up worldwide after 3 years of steady decline. “Shark bites dropped drastically in 2020 due to the pandemic,” ISAF manager Tyler Bowling said in a statement.
That said, WorldAtlas.com finds that in an average year, between 50 and 80 unprovoked shark attacks occur. So not counting those that happen when sharks are molested by divers or waders. And of these, only a handful are fatal.
Shark Attack Videos from Recent Encounters
However, it seems with the return of semi-normal activities we are seeing occasional reports of shark attacks from around the world. While live videos are still rare, there are so many cellphones now that more often we can catch sharks in the act of attacking people.
Videos of Shocking Shark Attacks
In fact, the BBC reports that just recently in Sydney, a man named Simon Nellist died after being attacked by a great white shark. He was the first man in 60 years to die of a shark attack in Sydney waters.
This video from News.com.au was taken by a nearby swimmer of the graphic event.
What is much more common are close encounters with sharks. This video from Puerto Rico documents the moment the tall dorsal fin of a shark pops up as it investigates a surfer in its domain!
Rare and Endangered Sharks
Many of the sharks we’ve talked about are both famous and easy to find in nature. But there are a few endangered sharks that are so rare or hard to reach that you will probably never see one in your entire life.
In the lightless depths, you might encounter oddities like the frilled shark or greenland shark, if you are closer to the poles.
Are Sharks Endangered?
Some sharks, like the silky shark and angel shark, are very common. But more sharks are in danger, sometimes becoming endangered and in need of legal protection.
A few of the types of sharks in this article that are endangered include the oceanic whitetip, whale shark, and the ganges river shark, which we will talk about next.
Shark attacks make the news often. The International Shark Attack File finds that only between 50 and 80 shark attacks happen each year worldwide, with less than a handful of deaths.
According to World Atlas.com, in 2019, there were 64 unprovoked shark attacks recorded and only 5 deaths caused by sharks.
Humans are by far the greatest threat to sharks. Pollution, commercial fishing, and other activities all threaten their lives.
As apex predators with long lifespans, sharks usually take decades to mature. So their numbers can be hit hard in a very short time by overfishing.
Ganges River Shark: a True Freshwater Shark
There are no types of aquarium sharks that are true sharks like the marine fish we’ve talked about above. And even the bull shark, which can live in freshwater, usually returns to the sea because it spawns there.
But believe it or not, there is a true freshwater shark out there! Despite living along one of the most populated rivers in the world, the ganges river shark is extremely rare.
Often they are confused with freshwater bull sharks. But ganges river sharks are not aggressive and feed mostly on fish. They are also smaller, rarely growing beyond 5 to 6 feet long.
More Ganges River Shark Facts:
- Ganges river sharks are critically endangered due to pollution, habitat loss, and overfishing. There may be as few as 250 left in the wild.
- The ganges river shark is a true freshwater shark! They may be able to return to saltwater but it is not known if they do or why.
Megamouth Shark: an Extraordinary Discovery
Did you know that out of all the 500 different types of sharks, only three are known to feed on plankton? They are the whale shark, basking shark, and the very recently discovered megamouth shark!
Megamouth sharks are sensational for many reasons. For one, they are one of the largest sharks in the world. While they are small next to a whale or basking shark, an adult megamouth shark can grow up to 18 feet long.
Yet megamouth sharks weren’t discovered until 1976! How could it be that one of the biggest sharks ever was entirely unknown to us?
Simple: they live in the deepest parts of the sea, which is full of secrets that we are only beginning to uncover. Megamouth sharks are typically caught at depths of around 400 to 80 feet, where the ocean floor is thousands of feet down!
The first megamouth shark actually got entangled in the sea anchor of a US Navy ship. While the shark was caught 541 feet down the surrounding ocean was nearly 3 miles deep.
Megamouth sharks love the depths!
More Megamouth Shark Facts:
- Only 99 megamouth sharks have been seen or captured since they were first discovered.
- While they are found in the Pacific oceans, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans the most megamouth sharks have been found in the waters around Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
- Megamouth sharks are soft and flabby and very slow swimmers.
Cookiecutter Shark: the Tiny Master Hunter
The cookiecutter shark is actually a thing and we did not make this one up! And no, I don’t mean shark cookies, nor a cookie shark!
They are also a lot scarier than you think. Besides having a fairly silly name, cookiecutter sharks are quite small. They look like a greenland shark only grows 16 to 22 inches long, so you aren’t being dragged beneath the waves anytime soon by one.
But just because you are much larger doesn’t mean a cookiecutter shark won’t try! These sharks have one of the most unusual feeding strategies in the world. They surprise larger animals, latch on with a suction cup-like mouth, and use their cookie cutter-like teeth and jaws to remove a circular plug of flesh from the larger animal.
Imagine a type of shark that is also a mosquito and you have a cookiecutter shark. Only instead of sucking blood, it takes a chunk of flesh. Worse, they sometimes attack in schools, which maybe makes them more like piranhas.
And yes, they have been known to attack humans occasionally. Attacks are very rare because cookiecutter sharks are typically found in offshore waters where we rarely swim.
However, some open water channel crossings, especially in Hawaii, have seen swimmers attacked by these rare sharks. Even an attack in Florida back in 2009 was attributed to the tiny cookiecutter shark!
More Cookiecutter Shark Facts
- Cookiecutter sharks recycle their own teeth! Alex Laybourne of TheCoolist.com notes: “It is believed that the cookiecutter shark will swallow its own teeth and ‘recycle’ them to strengthen its cartilaginous skeleton.”
- Submarines and undersea cables have also been found with damage caused by cookiecutter sharks.
- Cookiecutter sharks also eat squid and small fish. But nearly any large sea animal can be found with bites from these sharks, including dolphins, whales, seals, dugongs, fish, and other sharks.
Wrapping Up Our Deep Dive
As you’ve come to appreciate, there are many different types of sharks. And these sharks come in an astounding array of body plans, sizes, and dietary habits. From the tiny spiny dogfish shark to massive sleeper sharks, the variety of sharks in this world is incredible!
Some are dangerous to us while others ignore us as much as possible. But all sharks are worthy of our respect and appreciation as they go about gracefully living their lives in the deep blue depths!
More Frequently Asked Questions about the Different Types of Sharks
Still not done learning as much as you can about the different types of sharks out there? Then consider these commonly asked questions about sharks!
How Many Great White Sharks are Left in the World?
The exact number of great white sharks in the world is unknown. A 2010 study done at Stanford University estimates that there are only around 3500 in the entire world, which would make them extremely vulnerable. Yet another study from the University of Florida in 2014 calculated that there are around 2,000 just in Californian waters alone.
Are Megalodon Sharks Still Alive Today?
Lovers of myths and cryptids (unknown animals) often suggest that megalodon sharks might still be alive. But these sharks definitely went extinct millions of years ago. All it would take is a single non fossilized megalodon tooth to be discovered to put everything into question. Since no one has ever found one, let alone a body, it is safe to say these sharks are long gone.
Can Whale Sharks Eat Humans?
Whale sharks don’t eat humans. If a person fell into its mouth by accident it’s uncertain what would happen. But many filter feeding animals have such narrow throats that the shark would probably not even be able to swallow you properly. Still, it is best not to test this out in real life.
What is the Most Dangerous Shark?
Bull sharks are considered to be the most dangerous sharks in the world. They aren’t as large as great whites and other “flashier” types of shark so they rarely manage to kill people. But bull sharks can live in freshwater, don’t mind shallow water, are innately aggressive, and they are willing to try eating anything that moves.