The Great White Shark Is the Serial Killer of the Seas

By Eliza Strickland | June 22, 2009 8:52 am

great white sharkThe most menacing predator of the seas has something in common with the most terrifying human predator: A new study has revealed similarities between great white sharks and serial killers. When a great white shark gets hungry, it doesn’t simply head for a crowd of seals and pick off the closest one. Instead, the great white lurks in its favorite hunting spot, waiting for a young and unwary seal to venture into the invisible danger zone. Then, it strikes silently from below.

Researchers used a serial killer profiling method to figure out just how the fearsome ocean predator hunts, something that’s been hard to observe beneath the surface. “There’s some strategy going on,” said study co-author Neil Hammerschlag…. “It’s more than sharks lurking at the water waiting to go after them” [AP].

For the study, which will be published in the Journal of Zoology, researchers wanted to analyze the hunting patterns of great white sharks near South Africa’s Seal Island, and decided to team up with Kim Rossmo, a criminal justice expert…. Rossmo specialises in the geographical profiling of criminal acts, including those by terrorists and serial killers. For example, by using the locations of a series of linked crimes, such as murder or arson, it is possible to predict the location of a criminal’s anchor point, usually a home or place of work [BBC News].

By analyzing 340 shark attacks on seals, the researchers determined whether the sites of such attacks were random, and if not, the most likely “anchor point” from which attacks were being launched [New Scientist]. They found that the older sharks, who were the most successful hunters, were attacking from clearly defined anchor points about 100 yards from areas where the seals congregated. At that vantage point they were far enough away to avoid scaring their prey, but close enough to spot a straggler breaking away from the group, and swimming alone into the killing zone.

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Image: University of Miami

MORE ABOUT: ocean, sharks
  • Chris

    ok, yeah sure do a study on shark hunting habits, good stuff right? but saying they are like serial killers is silly, needless anthropomorphising. doesn’t this study just show that they are territorial?

  • Rachel

    Discover has published some really nice shark-related articles in the past, with scientific accuracy as well as journalistic panache. Lisa Gold’s 1996 article “Shark Therapy” comes to mind. In fact,
    Strickland’s own 2008 blog post, “Embrace the Sharks, Before It’s Too Late,” is a good example.

    However, this post seemed mostly designed to garner thrill-seeking page views. The original research is really about using a particular statistical tool from criminology to analyze how sharks
    optimize their hunting strategy. This does NOT make the Great White the “serial killer of the seas.” What non-herbivore is not a serial killer? Ask a mackerel how it feels about that “young and unwary” seal. I would have expected a Discover journalist to look more critically at the way this research has been framed in the press.

    Frankly, I am disappointed in you, Discover team, for participating in the demonizing of sharks in popular culture. We kill millions of sharks every year, destroying keystone species in the ocean’s ecosystems. Even a blog post should have a little more thought put into it than this.

  • Landon

    ridiculous article. for shame, Discover team, for shame.

  • Nick

    It’s a report on a scientific study, folks. How exactly is the article demonizing sharks again?

  • Albert Bakker

    @Nick, demonizing by comparing sharks with human serial killers on the ground that both use a sound strategy to kill helpless victims while not getting caught by the police. And like their shark counterparts, human serial killers tend to be white. Just a coincidence? Usually they’re cruel to squirrels and have abusive mums. And if the standard response to human serial killers are any indication, soon we’ll be knowing them by name and we’ll talk about Albert Fish, John Wayne Wavy, Jack The Flipper etc. instead of stigmatizing an entire species.

    It could be a fruitful idea to investigate the victimized seals too. There’s a good chance they’re prostitutes.

  • Wayne

    Comparing Great White sharks with humans is totally unscientific and absurd.Are these “scientists” trying to take a page from “Jaws”, and scare humans so much that humans will once again engage in indiscriminate killing of Great Whites (and other sharks,many who are endangered), in a manner such as what happened after the movie “Jaws” was released by Hollywood? Sharks kill their prey to survive, just as humans kill cows and other animals to survive on this planet. The FBI defines a serial killer as one who murders three or more victims, with “cooling-off” periods between each murder, sharks do not murder their prey,they kill their prey because it is an innate and learned behavior within their species.

  • Ryan

    The question I asked myself after reading the article was, “does the serial killermetaphor make this study easier to put into context and understand?” The answer is no, and that is why Discover should refrain from comparisons like this.

  • Kin

    Yep. Sorry. I’m resuscribing in another tab, just now,

    but I still add: for shame.

  • Ken B

    I thought it was a great article. Why should human predator behavior exclude animal predator behavior or vice versa? Are we not them/are they not us in some very important ways?

  • lizzie

    u peeps r nerds!!!! anybody who is reading this is a nerd!!!!!!!!! And btw chris, NORMAL peeps dont say silly they say STUPID!!!!!!!! post something INTERESTING!!!! go on a date. eat cereal!!! do something!!!!!!

  • Darian

    Realy? Who do you think you are belittling one of the most beautiful and oldest creatures on the planet, sharks keep balance in the ecosystem so why don’t you shut up and worry about protecting these magnificent creatures instead of relating them to the most disgusting creatures ever to be spawned who do nothing but ruin this planet, you disgust me, this is why humans don’t deserve to be here, these creatures should be protected and instead you call them serial killers. That is sick, you abviously don’t understand that they keep these creatures from overpopulating like the ignorant land dwellers you are, shut up, it’s people like you who are going to lead these wonderful being straight to extinction, why don’t you dress up like a seal and jump into the water with them so they can devour you and control the ignorance that sweeps the earth.


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