Marine Biology

How does the Great White Shark Capture its Prey

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"How does the Great White Shark Capture its Prey"
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Great White sharks are sophisticated, intelligent and very deliberate predators.  Once thought to be mindless feeders, Great Whites are now known to have complex senses designed into their anatomy that virtually guarantee that no prey escapes their notice.  They also have developed superior strategies to capture prey which have allowed them to become the apex predators of the world’s oceans. 

Prey Identification

Great White sharks have many different ways of sensing and locating prey.  The most obvious of these are the eyes and nostrils.  The sharks learn to recognize the general shapes of prey items so that they can recognize them when they are in close proximity.  However, their eyesight is not any better than that of a human, which may explain why they sometimes mistake surfers and divers for seals.  As is widely known, sharks have a very good sense of smell.  They can detect scents as faint as one part per million and can even determine the direction from which the smell comes.

Slightly less well-known are two other senses at the Great White’s disposal.  Their snouts contain a network of electroreceptors called the ampullae of Lorenzini.  These sensory organs are imbedded in canals beneath pores on the snout and allow the shark to detect electrical fields produced by living organisms.   This system helps the shark to pinpoint the exact position and of prey without their eyes.  In fact, without ampullae of Lorenzini the Hammerhead shark would have serious difficulty feeding as its mouth is below its field of vision.  Additionally, similar pores running along the sides of sharks’ bodies called the lateral lines sense vibrations made by other animals as they swim.

This collection of senses gives all sharks a supreme edge in locating and tracking prey.  Combine this with the size of the Great White, and it becomes perfectly clear why it is the top predator in the ocean.

Strategy – General Feeding

Great White sharks prefer to hunt pinnepeds because of the large amounts of energy they can get from blubber.  However, they will also eat various fish that they come across by chasing down those that are not fast enough to get away.  However, this strategy brings diminishing returns as it often takes more energy to capture the fish than the shark will get out of it.  For this reason Great Whites hunt pinnepeds whenever possible.

Strategy – Hit and Run

Great Whites employ different strategies depending on what kind and size of pinneped they are hunting.  For larger species such as the Northern Elephant Seal, Great Whites prefer a hit and run strategy.  They take advantage of the seal’s low mobility and follow along behind it.  Then, the shark savagely bites the hindquarters of the seal giving it a vicious crippling wound.  The shark then pulls back and simply waits for the seal to bleed to death, after which it can consume the carcass at its leisure.

Strategy – Death from Below

For smaller, faster pinnepeds such as harbor seals, Great Whites must rely on surprise.  Similarly to the hit and run strategy they use with Elephant Seals, the shark follows behind the seal, but more often from below.  The shark then quickly propels itself upward and seizes the seal at its midsection before it has a chance to flee.  Occasionally the shark misses or the seal manages to dodge the attack.  In such instances, the shark will continue to try to catch the seal, but the seals superior maneuverability will often win out in such a contest.

Sources: The Discovery Channel, Wikipedia, and,

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