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One Smart Shark

Behind the Scenes of Built for the Kill

Photo: Great white shark

Photo: Great white shark (View larger version)

Photo by iStockPhoto

Ian McGee, Series Producer & Writer

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I was young when I first saw the movie Jaws.  Yes, I was scared of the great white shark – but part of me always knew you can’t trust what’s on the big screen.  Hollywood exaggerates.  Movie monsters are always far scarier than things in real life.  That’s why I thought a real great white shark could never be as terrifying as the giant fish in Jaws.

Boy – was I wrong.

Working on the great white shark episode of Built For The Kill, I discovered that the world’s largest predatory fish is scarier than anything imagined by Steven Spielberg.  The movie did get the basic details right.  The shark is huge (imagine a fish the size of a Hummer – with the engine of a Ferrari).  And it is a super predator.  Armed with 300 razor-sharp serrated teeth, great whites relentlessly pursue prey (including hapless humans) across the oceans of the world.

But the great white shark is NOT the mindless killing machine seen in the movies.  The shark is smart.  It has a large and complex brain.  A great white doesn’t just bite the first thing it bumps into – it has different strategies for different prey.  Catching seals takes more than just cunning, speed and power.  The shark also uses an array unique sensory and physiological tricks that have evolved over 400 million years.

The great white has the largest brain of any “cold-blooded” animal - and it devotes an unrivalled 18% of that brain to its sense of smell.  No wonder it can sniff out minute concentrations of blood in the water, even when it's diluted to one part in ten million (that's the equivalent of one drop of blood mixed into a small swimming pool!).

It’s the only shark in the world that pokes its head above the surface to size up a seal before it even enters the killing zone. Great whites have exceptional vision – and come equipped with photo-chromic sunglasses which darken in bright light to prevent dazzle!  The slightest muscular twitch of its prey discharges a minute electrical field, which the great white detects in the water.  It’s sensitive to a millionth of a volt!

And great white sharks get around.  Fuelled by blubber, one female completed a trans-oceanic 12,000 mile circuit between South Africa and Western Australia - the fastest return migration recorded among marine animals of any kind.  Just why - and how - the sharks undertake such massive migrations is still a mystery.   But one thing’s for sure.  It’s been more than 30 years since Spielberg put the great white on the big screen - and in that time we’ve learned a lot more about this remarkable shark.   So, if Hollywood ever makes a new version of the movie – brace yourself.   We now know the real fish would eat the monster from Jaws for breakfast!

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