Great White Shark Behavior, Senses, Mating and Social Activity

Home | Category: Great White Sharks


20120518-great Whiteshark-TGoss1.jpgGreat white sharks are generally solitary, diurnal (active during the daytime), nocturnal (active at night), motile (move around as opposed to being stationary),nomadic (move from place to place, generally within a well-defined range), migratory (make seasonal movements between regions, such as between breeding and wintering grounds) and have dominance hierarchies. There is not a great deal of information about the home range of great white sharks and what information there is suggests they roam widely. [Source: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

While great white sharks are solitary animals from time to time they are seen in pairs or in small groups. Groups of great white sharks are believed to have established dominance hierarchies They are well-known for short, fast chases and are sometimes seen breaking the surface of the water in impressive jumps

Leonard Compagno, a shark expert who has worked with great white sharks for more than 20 years in South Africa, says great white sharks are surprisingly intelligent creatures. He told Smithsonian magazine, “When I’m on the boat, they’ll pop their heads out of the water and look me directly in the eye. Once when there were several people on the boat, a great white looked each person in the eye, one by one, checking us out. They feed on large brained social animals such as seals and dolphins and to do this you have to operate on a level higher than the simple machine mentality of an ordinary fish.”

Alison Kock, another shark researcher, regards great whites as “are intelligent, highly inquisitive creatures.” She told Smithsonian magazine that she once saw a great white shark come up from below a sea bird floating in the surface of the water and “gently” grab the bird and swim around a boat — in what almost seemed like an act of play — and release the bird which flew away, apparently unharmed. Researchers also found living seals and penguins with “curiosity bites.” Compagna says many so-called “attacks” on human are equally playful. He said, “I interviewed two divers here who were grabbed lightly by the hand by a white shark, towed a short distance and then released with minimal injury.”

Websites and Resources: Shark Foundation ; International Shark Attack Files, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida ; Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute ; Cousteau Society ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Great White Brain and Sensory Organs

Great white shark jumping off South Africa

Based on the examination of a head supplied to researchers at the University of South Florida by a fishermen, the great white shark’s brain weighs only an ounce and a half. The scientists determined that 18 percent of the brain was devoted to smell, the highest percentage among sharks.

According to to Animal Diversity Web (ADW) Great white sharks have several highly developed senses and sense and communicate with vision, touch, chemicals usually detected by smelling and electric signals, Their primary sense is the ability to smell. They can detect a drop of blood in 100 liters of water. They also have the ability to detect electrical charges as small as 0.005 microvolts. Prey can be detected by the electrical field generated by a beating heart or gill action. Fish in hiding can also be detected this way. [Source: Dana Chewning and Matt Hall, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Great white sharks possess acute color vision, the largest scent-detecting organs of any shark, and sensitive electroreceptors that give it access to environmental cues beyond human experience. They have sensitive eyes with rods and cone receptors like human that pick up color and heighten the contrast between dark and light, which is useful for making out prey at long distances away under water. They also have a reflective layer behind their retina — the same thing that makes cat’s eyes glow — and that helps bounce extra light to the retinal cells to enhance vision in murky water.

Great white sharks have a number of other features that help them detect prey. They have unusually large olfactory bulbs in their nostrils that give them a more acute sense of smell than nearly any other fish. They also have tiny electrical sensors in their pores, connected to nerves via jelly-fill canals, that detect the heartbeats and movements of prey and electrical fields.

Their mouths are also sensory organs with pressure sensitive jaws and teeth that may be able to determine whether potential prey is worth eating or not. Shark expert Ron Taylor told the International Herald Tribune, "Great white sharks are made to hunt marine mammals. The only way they can really investigate something is by feeling it with its teeth.”

Peter Klimly of the University of California are Davis, who has studied sharks for almost 40 years, told Smithsonian magazine that great white sharks operate from a “hierarchy of senses.” depending on it distance from potential prey. “At the greatest distance, it can only smell something, and as it draws close it can hear, and then see it, When the shark gets really close, it can’t actually see the prey right under its snout because of its eye position, so it uses electroreception.”

Great White Shark Intelligence, Curiosity and Learning

biting a fake seal

R. Aidan Martin and Anne Martin wrote in Natural History magazine, “ Complex social behaviors and predatory strategies imply intelligence. White sharks can certainly learn. The average shark at Seal Island catches its seal on 47 percent of its attempts. Older white sharks, however, hunt farther from the Launch Pad and enjoy much higher success rates than youngsters do. Certain white sharks at Seal Island that employ predatory tactics all their own catch their seals nearly 80 percent of the time. For example, most white sharks give up ira seal escapes, but a large female we call Rasta (for her extremely mellow disposition toward people and boats) is a relentless pursuer, and she can precisely anticipate a seal's movements. She almost always claims her mark, and seems to have honed her hunting skills to a sharp edge through trial-and-error learning. [Source: R. Aidan Martin, Anne Martin, Natural History magazine, October 2006]

We are also learning that white sharks are highly curious creatures that systematically escalate their explorations from the visual to the tactile. Typically, they nip and nibble to investigate with their teeth and gums, which are remarkably dexterous and much more sensitive than their skin. Intriguingly, highly scarred individuals are always fearless when they make "tactile explorations" of our vessel, lines, and cages. By contrast, unscarred sharks are uniformly timid in their investigations. Some white sharks are so skittish that they flinch and veer away when they notice the smallest change in their environment. When such sharks resume their investigations, they do so from a greater distance. In fact, over the years we have observed remarkable consistency in the personalities of individual sharks. In addition to hunting style and degree of timidity, sharks are also consistent in such traits as their angle and direction of approach to an object of interest.

There is a guy in South Africa that attracts great white’s to his boat, rubs their nose, which causes the fish to flop back and beg like a dog that wants its stomach scratched.

AC/DC Can Calm Great White Sharks

According to NME, Australian boat operator Matt Waller has been conducting experiments to determine how certain music affects the behavior of great white sharks. After pawing through his music library and playing tons of different songs to no avail, he hit the jackpot. He noticed that when he played AC/DC tracks, the ordinarily frenzied sharks became much more calm. [Source: NME, Andrea Kszystyniak,]

“Their behavior was more investigative, more inquisitive and a lot less aggressive,” Waller said to Australian news outlet ABC news. “They actually came past in a couple of occasions when we had the speaker in the water and rubbed their face along the speaker which was really bizarre.”

These sharks are responding to the music without even being able to hear it. Waller says that they are simply reacting to the frequencies and vibrations of the Aussie rock band. “Sharks don’t have ears, they don’t have long hair, and they don’t head bang past the cage doing the air guitar,” Waller said to Australian Geographic.

So which album do they like best? Is it AC/DC’s 1979 record, Highway to Hell? Or a piece off of 1981 hit, For Those About to Rock, We Salute You? Nope. Apparently the shark’s top track is “You Shook Me All Night Long.”

Great White Shark Social Behavior

Great whites mostly hunt alone but that doesn't mean they are they are the loan wolves they are often made out to be. They are sometimes seen in pairs or small groups feeding on a carcass with the largest individuals feeding first. Individuals can swim in a variety of patterns in order to establish their hierarchy.

At feeding aggregations, such as at whale carcasses, this generally solitary species often establishes temporary social hierarchies which are based largely on size. Among similar-sized individuals, the social hierarchy is maintained through a subtle form of body language. Recent research has demonstrated that great whites are socially complex, featuring such behaviors as parallel swimming, jaw gaping, pectoral fin depression, and even splash-fights. Great white sharks are also unusual among sharks in that they sometime rais their heads out of the water, apparently to observe activity above the surface. [Source: Dana Chewning and Matt Hall, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Compagno told Smithsonian great white shark can be very social animals. When great white sharks congregate, he said, “some are assertive, others relatively timid. They body slam, nudge or carefully bite each other in dominance displays.” Fishermen have told him they have seen great white’s hunt cooperatively. “One great white will draw the attention of a seal, allowing another to come from behind and ambush it.”

Explaining what he had learned by tracking great whites implanted with electronic devices, Burney Le Boeuf, marine biologist at the University of California at Santa Clara, told Discover, "Specific sharks spent significantly more time with some sharks than other sharks. It was clear some kind of bonding had occurred.”

The bodies of great whites are often covered in scares. It is not known whether these scares are caused by resisting prey, whales, sex partners or other great white rivalry or even playfulness. Le Boeuf tracked one shark that had captured a seal and then engaged -n aggressive tail-slapping behavior, which seemed to indicate that there was only enough food for one shark and others should stay away.

Great White Shark Social Life

Around Seal island in South Africa when a seal is killed by one great white shark other great whites appear on the scene in minutes or in seconds. Usually they swim around one another, sizing each other up, with the lower-ranking sharks hunching their backs, and lowering their pectoral fins and then veering away while the higher ranking sharks’sometimes the one that made the kill, sometimes not — claim what remains of the carcass.

R. Aidan Martin and Anne Martin wrote in Natural History magazine, “After the morning flush of predatory activity at Seal Island, white sharks turn to socializing. For white sharks socializing trumps dining. Sneaky turns his attention to Couz. Is he friend or foe? Of higher or lower rank? For half a minute, Sneaky and Couz swim side by side, warily sizing each other up as white sharks do when they meet. All of a sudden, Sneaky hunches his back and lowers his pectoral fins in response to the threat posed by the larger shark, whereupon he and Couz veer apart. As we record their interactions, a female sweeps in and usurps the remains of Sneaky's abandoned meal. Then calm returns to the sea. Just six minutes have passed since the seal pup was innocently making its way to shore. [Source: R. Aidan Martin, Anne Martin, Natural History magazine, October 2006]

White sharks have a number of markings that may serve a social purpose. The pectoral fins, for instance, feature black tips on the undersurface and white patches on the trailing edge. Both markings are all but concealed when the sharks swim normally, but are flashed during certain social interactions. And a white patch that covers the base of the lower lobe of the shark's two-pronged tail may be important when one shark follows another. But if those markings help white sharks signal to one another, they may also make the sharks more visible to their prey. And if so, the trade-off between camouflage and social signaling demonstrates the importance of social interactions among white sharks.

Rank appears to be based mainly on size, though squatter's rights and sex also play a role. Large sharks dominate over smaller ones, established residents over newer arrivals, and females over males. Why such a focus on rank? The main reason is to avoid combat. As many as twenty-eight white sharks gather at Seal Island each day during the winter seal-hunting season, and competition among them for hunting sites and prey is intense. But since white sharks are such powerful, heavily armed predators, physical combat is a risky prospect. Indeed, unrestrained combat is extremely rare. Instead, the white sharks at Seal Island reduce competition by spacing themselves while hunting, and they resolve or avert conflicts through ritual and display.

At Seal Island, white sharks arrive and depart year after year in stable "clans" of two to six individuals. Whether clan members are related is unknown, but they get along peacefully enough. In fact, the social structure era clan is probably most aptly compared to that of a wolf pack: each member has a clearly established rank, and each clan has an alpha leader. When members of different clans meet, they establish social rank nonviolently through any era fascinating variety of interactions.

Types of Great White Shark Social Behaviors

R. Aidan Martin and Anne Martin wrote in Natural History magazine, “White sharks engage in at least twenty distinct social behaviors; eight are shown below. The significance of the behaviors remains largely unknown, but many help the sharks establish social rank and avoid physical conflict. They include: 1) Parallel Swim. Two white sharks swim slowly, side by side, several feet apart, perhaps to compare size and establish rank, or to determine ownership of a disputed kill. The submissive shark flinches and swims away. 2) Lateral Display. A white shark stretches out perpendicular to another shark for a few seconds, perhaps to show off its size and establish dominance. 3) Swim By. Two white sharks glide slowly past each other in opposite directions, several feet apart. They may be comparing sizes to determine which is dominant, or simply identifying each other. [Source: R. Aidan Martin, Anne Martin, Natural History magazine, October 2006]

4) Hunch Display. White shark arches its back and lowers its pectoral fins for several seconds in response to a threat, often from a dominant shark, before fleeing or attacking. 5) Circling Two or three white sharks follow one another in a circle, perhaps to identify one another or to determine rank. 6) Give Way. Two white sharks swim toward one another. The first to swerve cedes dominance--a white-shark version of "chicken." 7) Splash Fight. Two sharks splash each other with their tails, a rare behavior, apparently to contest the ownership of a kill. The shark that makes the most or biggest splashes wins, and the other accepts a submissive rank. A single shark may also splash another to establish dominance or contest a kill. 8) Repetitive Aerial Gaping. White shark holds its head above the surface, repeatedly gaping its jaws, often after failing to capture a decoy. The behavior may be a socially nonprovocative way to vent frustration.

Two white sharks often swim side by side, possibly to compare their relative sizes; they may also parade past each other in opposite directions or follow each other in a circle. One shark may direct splashes at another by thrashing its tail, or it may leap out of the water in the other's presence and crash to the surface. Once rank is established, the subordinate shark acts submissively toward the dominant shark--giving way if they meet, or avoiding a meeting altogether. And rank has its perks, which can include rights to a lower-ranking shark's kill.

Another form of nonviolent, tension-diffusing behavior often takes place after a shark repeatedly fails to catch bait (typically a tuna head) or a rubber seal decoy: the shark holds its head above the surface while rhythmically opening and closing its jaws. In 1996 Wesley R. Strong, a shark investigator then affiliated with the Cousteau Society in Hampton, Virginia, suggested the behavior might be a socially nonprovocative way to vent frustration--the equivalent era person punching a wall.

Great White Shark Reproduction

Great white sharks seldom breed. They take about 15 years to reach reproducible age and breed only once in two years. There is no parental investment after offspring (pups) are born. Pre-fertilization and pre-hatching and birth provisioning and protecting is done by the female

Great white sharks are ovoviviparou (young are produced from eggs that hatch within the body of a parent) and iteroparous (offspring are produced in groups such as litters multiple times in successive annual or seasonal cycles). They engage in internal reproduction in which sperm from the male fertilizes the egg within the female. Most fish are are oviparous, meaning that young are hatched from eggs. [Source: Dana Chewning and Matt Hall, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Male great white sharks reach sexual maturity at 3.5 to 4 meters (about 11.5 to 13 feet) in length and about 10 years of age, whereas females reach sexual maturity at 4.5 to 5 meters (about 15 to 16 feet) in length and 12 to 18 years of age. The breeding season is unknown. The range in the number of offspring born is 2 to 14, with the average number of offspring being seven. The average gestation period is 14 months. The long gestation period is one reason why great whites don’t breed very often.

According to Animal Diversity Web (ADW): Females give birth to live young, unlike many other sharks who lay eggs. Fertilized eggs are retained within the body and develop there. Prior to birth, the young in the womb may feed on undeveloped eggs and possibly their unborn siblings. Litters consist of 2 to 10 pups. Females are assumed to give birth in warm temperate and subtropical waters, but specific nursery areas are unknown. It is possible that individual females mate soon after giving birth, but this remains to be confirmed.

Great White Shark Mating and Offspring

Where and the details of how great white sharks mate is unknown. No one has ever seen great whites mate, scientist speculate the mate in the ocean depths after fattening themselves up near the coasts. They are believed to be polygynandrous (promiscuous), with both males and females having multiple partners.

Like other sharks and cartilaginous fish, males possess a pair of sperm-delivering organs called claspers that extend from the pelvic fins. After mating eggs hatch inside the female’s uterus.

According to Animal Diversity Web: Much about the mating behavior of great white sharks is still unknown. Some scientists believe that scarred individuals suggest male-male aggression or that a male’s gentle biting of females may precede mating. Bite marks observed on the dorsum, flanks, and particularly the pectoral fins of mature female great whites have been interpreted as the results of mating. It is most likely that the male bites the female during copulation. [Source: Dana Chewning and Matt Hall, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

“Great white sharks have also been known to propel two-thirds of their body out of the water and land flat against the surface, causing a large splash. This behavior is called a "pattern breach". This behavior might be used to attract a mate during courtship. Mating has yet to be fully documented in great white sharks, but it is assumed to be similar to internal fertilization in most sharks, where the male inserts his claspers into the cloaca of the female. Courtship behavior, if there is any, is unknown.

Great white pups are born live. Females generally give birth to four to 14 pups that emerge from their mothers at about 1,2 to 1.5 meters (four to five-feet) in length and weigh 25 kilograms (60 pounds) and appear ready to hunt. Even so may pups don’t survive their first year and are believed to be consumed by other sharks, including great whites.

Newborns get no help from their mothers after birth. As soon as they are born they swim away and are independent. It is not whether strong shark fetuses eat weaker one in the womb as is the case with other sharks. A newborn grows 25 centimeters each year, reaching maturity at 10 years.[Source: Dana Chewning and Matt Hall, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Great White Shark Filmed Sleeping — Something “Never Seen Before”

Mauricio Hoyos Padilla, a shark expert and researcher, filmed white sharks off Guadalupe island near Baja California sleeping for the first time. GrindTV reported: Researchers tracked a female shark named Emma with a robotic submersible and captured video of what they claim “nobody has ever seen before.” In “first-ever footage” shown in the “Jaws of the Deep” segment from Discovery Channel’s popular Shark Week, the 14-foot great white shark is seen napping. Researchers were documenting what great white sharks do at night and came away amazed. “During the day the shark is staying deep waiting for some prey item to come above them so they can feed on it,” a researcher says in the video. “During the night we’re seeing very different behavior. The shark is hugging the shoreline ... [Source: GrindTV, June 29, 2016]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons; YouTube, Animal Diversity Web, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated March 2023

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.