Calling all Baby Sharks! Yes, sharks may have a scary reputation—especially in the summer—but these ocean creatures are important to the ecosystem. Here's why you should teach your kids about them as SharkFest and Shark Week take over your TV this summer.

By Anna Halkidis
Updated August 03, 2020
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Yeji Kim

While movies like Jaws may have given sharks a bad rep, these ocean creatures are actually not as bad as they seem. In fact, sharks are critical to the ecosystem. As apex predators, they keep the marine food web in balance and subsequently impact seagrass (these take in and store carbon) and coral reef habitats.  

That’s why it’s important to teach our kids about them, says Mike Heithaus, Ph.D., a marine ecologist, who appears on Sharkcano and Raging Bull Shark, two shows part of National Geographic's SharkFest, which runs through August.

“The decisions we make largely as consumers, or just as citizens, determine the health of our oceans,” he says. “And if we don’t teach our kids that sharks are important, and they think sharks are just scary and evil—they may do things that hurt sharks.”

Dr. Heithaus is imparting that lesson on his own three kids—two boys, 16 and 13, and a daughter, 5—who he says are “shark enthusiasts.” His 13-year-old has even snorkeled with him and a bunch of 12-foot hammerheads. “Kids have a natural fasciation for sharks—and how can they not?” he adds. “Sharks are a great bridge into science, into imagination, and into exploration.”

Here are some facts to get your kids interested in these extraordinary ocean creatures.

What Do Sharks Eat?

Sharks are what you call “opportunistic feeders” since they have a wide variety of prey and will typically eat whatever is available around them. But most of them tend to munch on smaller fish and invertebrates, while larger ones may opt for marine mammals like seals and sea lions, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

As for eating humans? That’s been rarely documented and it’s often because a shark is “confused or curious” leading to an “accidental attack.” There were 64 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks recorded worldwide in 2019 and there is a global average of about four human deaths from sharks a year.

Dr. Heithaus ensures beachgoers shouldn't worry too much about shark attacks, especially since a lot of sharks near shore are relatively smaller and tend to actually be more scared of people. But it wouldn't hurt for swimmers to follow some safety protocol. "A lot of big predators will hunt in areas where the water is murky or at times when there’s lower light, so you might want to avoid swimming alone at those times or in those waters," he says. You may also want to avoid big areas with schools of fish where sharks may be feeding. "If you’re in those areas, a small shark might mistake a finger, hand, or foot for potential prey." 

How Many Teeth Do Sharks Have?

While the number of teeth vary by shark species, their mouths are no joke. The famous great white, for example, has 300 sharp teeth. And that's not all: These teeth sit in soft cartilage and often fall out, according to Smithsonian Magazine. But they have “rows of replacement teeth found inside the jawbone” and can grow more than 20,000 replacements in their lifetime.

How Long Do Sharks Live?

Most sharks in the wild have a life span of about 20 to 30 years but some live much longer. Take the Greenland shark—it can live up to hundreds of years.

Do Sharks Have Tongues?

A shark’s tongue is called a “basihyal,” which is a “small, thick piece of cartilage located on the floor of the mouth,” according to the Florida Museum. But unlike humans, a shark’s taste buds are found on the papillae lining the mouth and throat.

How Fast Can a Shark Swim?

Sharks are very speedy swimmers. A big reason for that is their skin—it’s made up of millions dermal denticles or “small v-shaped placoid scales” which reduce water friction. The fastest shark, the shortfin mako, can swim 25 miles per hour at a regular pace, but can hit 46 miles per hour with short bursts.

What Are the Different Types of Sharks?

While everyone has probably heard of great whites, there are more than 400 species of sharks. Here are just a few to start: tiger, bull, great hammerhead, sand tiger, basking, blue, sandbar, spiny dogfish, and nurse shark.

What’s the Largest Shark in the World?

Say hello to the whale shark, which can become as large as 60 feet. On the flipside, there are some sharks that are so small, they can fit in your hand.

How Big Is a Great White Shark?

Female great whites are bigger than males: The average female can reach about 15 to 16 feet long, while the average male is 11 to 13 feet, according to Smithsonian Ocean. But some great whites have also been documented at 20 feet long.

Are There Any Extinct Sharks?

Sharks have a long history, although not too much is known about those early sharks that are now extinct. Some include the elegestolepis—the earliest shark—from 420 million years ago, the Leonodus from 400 million years ago, and the falcatus falcatus from 325 million years ago.

What’s the Biggest Shark Ever Caught?

Donnie Braddick made history when he caught a 3,450-pound great white shark on rod and reel in 1986 near the shores of Montauk, New York. And it was quite an event: thousands of people showed up to see the shark at the Montauk Marine Basin.

Can't get enough of sharks? Tune in to SharkFest 2020 as it airs on National Geographic and later on Nat Geo Wild through August.

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