Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Most shark species live for about 20-30 years, but some, like the whale shark and Greenland shark, can live for over 100 years.
- Studying sharks and their lifespans has been difficult, but GPS tracking has made it easier to study their migratory routes and life habits.
- The lifespan of a shark depends on the species, environmental factors, predators, and its health condition.
- Sharks are an ancient species that have been around for millions of years, with some species surviving five mass extinction events.
- Sharks live in every ocean around the world and can go without food for about six weeks.
Sharks are long-living formidable predators that rule the ocean. But have you ever wondered, how long do sharks live? Well, that all depends on their species.
Most shark species live for about 20-30 years. Still, some can live significantly longer than that. Some species, like the whale shark and the Greenland shark, can live for over 100 years.
Take a look at 12 of the most popular and longest-lived species of sharks in the ocean today. We’ll also explore where sharks live, and how long they can survive without food.
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How Long Do Sharks Live?
Sharks are ancient creatures that have been around for millions of years. The very first sharks looked nothing like today’s sharks. Still, many species have survived five mass extinction events.
The largest shark, the megalodon, lived about 20 million years ago. It went extinct about 3.5 million years ago.
For the longest time, studying sharks and their lifespans has been difficult. They’re hard to track, so researchers couldn’t study them well. But with the invention of GPS tracking, studying the lives of sharks has gotten easier. GPS tracking allows us to accurately see their migratory routes and life habits.
When researchers capture a shark, they count the growth rings on the vertebrate. Like tree rings, the rings on vertebrae help to determine age.
Clearly, we can only perform this process on deceased sharks. Researchers then average the ages of the sharks they’ve captured. Together, those averages determine the lifespan of sharks.
But, how long can sharks live according to species?
The lifespan of a shark depends on the species, environmental factors, predators, and its health condition. Research also shows that captive sharks have shorter lifespans than their native counterparts.
Below, I’ve included a list of 12 shark species and their lifespans.
1. Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
Average Lifespan: 40-70 years
Researchers used to think that great white sharks only lived for about 25-30 years. The Marine and Freshwater Research Institute performed more research. The results show they can live far longer.
Great white sharks seem to grow far more slowly than other species. Their slow growth rate results in them living longer lives.
Today, great white sharks are the largest predatory fish on earth. They can reach lengths of up to 20.9 ft (6.4 m), with females typically being larger than males.
They have roamed the ocean for about 11 million years. Their ancestors date back about 60 million years.
2. Shortfin Mako Shark (Isurus Oxyrinchus)
Average Lifespan: 30 years
Shortfin mako sharks are large predatory sharks that reach lengths of up to 12 ft (3.8 m) and weigh up to 1,200 lbs (545 kg).
They roam the open ocean at speeds of up to 45 mph (74 k/mh). They are the fastest sharks in the world and one of the fastest fish in the ocean. Mako sharks are also skilled jumpers. They can leap incredible heights when hunting.
Because they are a migratory species, they have a specialized blood vessel structure. The structure allows for “countercurrent exchange.”
The specialized blood vessels allow them to maintain a body temperature higher than the surrounding water. Such an ability helps them to swim faster and stay healthy when migrating across cold waters.
3. Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum)
Average Lifespan: Up to 25 years
Nurse sharks are moderately-sized predators that reach lengths of 7.5-9.75 ft (2.3-3 m) and weigh up to 200-330 lbs (90.7-150 kg). They live in the warm waters of the eastern Pacific and western Atlantic oceans.
Nurse sharks are bottom dwellers. They move slowly along the ocean floor and are mostly harmless to humans. They are far from harmless to their prey, though. Nurse sharks have incredibly strong jaws with rows of thousands of serrated teeth.
4. Hammerhead (Sphyrnidae Sp.)
Average Lifespan: 25-44 years
The typical lifespan of hammerhead sharks is 25-30 years. Researchers have also discovered individuals living upwards of 44 years.
Hammerhead sharks are an ancient species. They have been around since the Cretaceous period. Still, scientists believe hammerheads are the youngest species of sharks.
Fossilized teeth suggest hammerheads may have existed 45 million years ago. Yet, molecular data says they likely only appeared 23 million years ago.
Over time, they evolved to have smaller bodies. Their smaller size allows them to spend more energy on reproduction than growth. Their head’s odd shape likely helps detect natural electric fields or currents. Detecting electricity is called “electroreception.” The ability likely enhances their swimming, vision, and smell.
During the day, hammerhead sharks travel together in schools. At night, they split off to hunt alone.
5. Oceanic Whitetip Shark (Carcharhinus longimanus)
Average Lifespan: Up to 25 years
Oceanic whitetip sharks live in the warm, shallow waters of the open ocean. They have distinct white markings on the tips of their pectoral, dorsal, and tail fins.
Their fins are not pointed like most sharks. Instead, their fins are long, round, and paddle-like. The shape of their fins allows them to effortlessly glide through the water.
These sharks received the nickname “sea dogs.” They like to follow ships as they are a known source of food. They are curious and like to investigate things unknown to them. They also hunt in large groups similar to how dogs and wolves hunt in packs.
6. Tiger Shark (Galeocerdo cuvier)
Average Lifespan: 20-50 years
Tiger sharks are some of the largest and fiercest predators in the ocean. They live in both tropical and subtropical oceans worldwide. They eat anything they can get ahold of and hunt both at the surface and near the ocean floor. Tiger sharks have even been found with tires and license plates in their stomachs.
Tiger sharks don’t just get their names from their fierce personalities. As juveniles, tiger sharks have dark, vertical stripes along their body. Some of the stripes remain as adults but are much harder to spot.
Tiger sharks average about 14 ft (4.3 m) long but can grow up to 20 ft (6.1 m). They can weigh up to 1,900 lbs (861.8 kg).
7. Gray Reef Shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos)
Average Lifespan: Up to 25 years
Gray reef sharks are classical-looking requiem sharks. They have a dark gray dorsal body and light gray underside. Their snouts are broad and round, and they have large eyes. They grow to about 6-7 ft (1.8-2.1 m) in length.
These sharks are social animals who gather in groups during the day. At night, they spread out to hunt alone.
Gray reef sharks are curious and frequently approach divers. They are frequently territorial with other animals but display little threat to humans.
8. Greenland Shark (Somniosus microcephalus) — Longest Living Species Of Shark
Average Lifespan: 250-500 years
The Greenland shark has a longer lifespan than any other species of shark. It is also the longest-lived vertebrate on earth. Their minimum lifespan is 250 years. Researchers believe that the oldest sharks may live for up to 500 years.
Their lifespans are likely so long because they have such slow reproduction rates. Once born, Greenland sharks only grow at a pace of 0.39 in (1 cm) per year.
Despite their slow growth rates, adults can reach lengths of up to 24 ft (7.3 m). Their growth rate is so slow that they don’t reach sexual maturity until about 100 years of age.
Greenland sharks are even slow hunters. They are physically incapable of swimming quickly. So, they ambush their prey while it’s sleeping.
Usually, researchers determine a shark’s age by the rings on its vertebrate. But, Greenland sharks don’t have these indicators. Instead, researchers determine their age through proteins in their eyes.
The protein develops within the shark before birth and does not degrade with age. Researchers can carbon date the protein to determine the shark’s age.
9. Sandbar Shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus)
Average Lifespan: 15-21 Years
Sandbar sharks are the most abundant shark species in the western Atlantic Ocean. They are a type of migratory requiem shark that gives birth to live young. Their streamlined bodies are torpedo-shaped, making them strong swimmers and formidable predators.
Despite living only 15-21 years, sandbar sharks grow slowly. They don’t reach sexual maturity until about 12 years of age.
10. Common Thresher Shark (Alopias vulpinus)
Average Lifespan: 19-50 Years
Common thresher sharks are enormous and ferocious animals that grow up to 20 ft (6.1 m) in length. Their caudal fin looks like a scythe and is long, almost half the length of the entire shark. They use their enormous tails to herd fish and then stun them with a well-placed smack.
Their eyes are also large, and the dorsal half of their body is dark brown to black. Their underside is white.
Thresher sharks most commonly live in the open ocean. They sometimes swim in shallow areas along the shore. Close to shore, they are most abundantly seen about 40 miles (64.4 km) from shore within bays.
11. Whale Shark (Rhincodon typus)
Average Lifespan: 70-100 Years
Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish. Their bodies can reach up to 40 ft (12.2 m) and weigh up to 50,000 lbs (22,679.6 kg).
The dorsal side of their body is a dark grayish-blue with distinct white spots and stripes. Though whale sharks are sharks, they are docile filter feeders. They mainly eat plankton and fish.
Whale sharks can live for over 100 years in the wild, but they don’t do well in captivity.
Captive environments don’t offer enough space for whale sharks to swim around. They become stressed and ill. In some instances, captive whale sharks were so distressed that they only lived for a few days. The oldest captive whale shark only lived for eight years.
12. Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias)
Average lifespan: 25-100 years
Spiny dogfish are the most abundant shark species in the ocean, but they are also quite small. Their bodies only reach 3.3-4.1 (1-1.2 m) in length. Still, they aren’t afraid to make a meal from fish larger than themselves. They have sharp, venomous spines at the front of each dorsal fin to help capture prey.
They received their name “dogfish” because fishermen observed them hunting in “packs”. Dogfish schools can consist of over 100 individuals. They come together to take down herring, capelin, and mackerel.
Spiny dogfish sharks have one of the longest lifespans of any shark species. Their gestation period is also long, lasting 18-24 months. Their gestation period is the longest one of any known animal in the world.
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A Shark’s Lifecycle
Although sharks have different life cycles, they all go through the same five life stages:
Fertilization & Gestation
Researchers know little about shark mating. Mating is difficult to observe. We know that fertilization usually occurs through internal fertilization. A female shark releases pheromones when she’s ready to mate, and the males come to her.
Males have sex organs called “claspers.” They enter the female’s cloaca for fertilization. The claspers have evolved from the pelvic fin and look similar to male mammal genitalia.
Some shark species can reproduce without a male in a process called “parthenogenesis.” The eggs develop without sperm. Parthenogenesis occurs in hound sharks, black-tip sharks, bonnethead sharks, and zebra sharks.
Incubation is where the life cycle begins to differ between shark species. Sharks incubate their offspring in three different ways:
Sharks that incubate via oviparity produce eggs. The eggs are usually encased in thick leather for protection. There are about 500 known species of sharks, and about 40% of those species lay eggs.
Viviparous species give birth to live pups. They sustain the pups with a nutritious placenta during incubation.
Most sharks are ovoviviparous. Ovoviviparity refers to sharks who have eggs that hatch within their bodies. When the eggs hatch, the pups are only somewhat developed. They stay inside the mother until they’re finished developing. The mother gives birth to fully-formed, live pups.
In some ovoviviparous species, only one pup survives until birth. When the first pup hatches from its egg, they go on to eat the rest of the eggs before they have a chance to hatch.
The gestation period for ovoviviparous pups is unknown. Still, researchers believe it likely takes several months up to a few years.
Pups are newborn sharks. Some species may only give birth to one or two pups at a time, while others may have up to 20 pups in a single litter.
The size of the pups at birth depends on the species. Pups are self-sufficient and receive no help from their mother. As soon as they are born, they swim away to begin their own lives hunting for food.
It takes several years for a shark to reach sexual maturity, sometimes as long as 15 years. Until then, young sharks are “subadults.” During these years, young sharks stay close to their area of birth. Few subadults make it to sexual maturity. They are small and grow slowly, leaving them in danger of becoming prey.
Once a shark reaches sexual maturity, they are an adult. Sharks spend most of their adult life looking for food. Their adult life is also when they begin reproducing.
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Where Do Sharks Live?
Sharks live in every ocean around the world, including the Arctic ocean. In the Arctic, they live under the ice in frigid waters. Other species live in tropical coral reefs.
How Long Can Sharks Live Without Food?
Sharks are not always hungry and do not need to constantly eat. Researchers suggest that sharks likely go through an “eating phase.” The eating phase is where they hunt and eat more often.
Research shows that sharks can go without food for approximately six weeks. The longest a shark has ever gone without eating was 15 months, as observed in the Swell shark.
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How Old are Sharks? (As a Species)
Sharks are an ancient species that have been roaming the earth for 450 million years. Fossilized scales of their ancestors date back to the Late Ordovician Period.
Archaeologists have found fossilized scales, but no teeth. Researchers suggest the possibility that the earliest species may not have had teeth.
The earliest fossilized shark-like teeth date to around 410 million years ago. This was during the Early Devonian period.
These teeth belong to a fish called Doliodus problematicus. Scientists describe this shark as the “least shark-like shark.” These fish likely belong to the group of spiny sharks, or acanthodians.
Acanthodians look nothing like modern-day sharks. Their scales are diamond-shaped, with spines in front of their fins. They are like modern-day sharks in that they have cartilaginous skeletons. They also have shark-like teeth, and a shark-like skull and jaw.
Cladoselache & The Golden Age Of Sharks
The first group of fish we recognize as “modern” day sharks are the Cladoselache.
These fish began evolving around the Devonian period, 380 million years ago. These fish look most like our modern-day sharks. Still, researchers say they may have been a type of chimera. Their bodies were shaped like torpedos, and they had forked dorsal fins and tails.
At the end of the Devonian period, the world underwent a massive extinction event. The event killed 75% of all species on earth.
However, the extinction event was a blessing for sharks. Sharks took over the ocean and evolved into various species. This period was known as the “golden age” of sharks.
Many of the sharks that evolved during the “golden age” came from the chimeras. Such species included the Stethacanthus, Helicoprion, and Falcatus.
Mass Extinction & Modern Sharks
The world underwent another mass extinction event at the end of the Permian Period. The Permian Period was around 252 million years ago. 96% of marine life was wiped out, but many shark species survived.
The oldest known “modern” shark evolved around 195 million years ago. This was during the Early Jurassic Period. These sharks were known as the Sixgill Sharks (Hexanchiformes). Other modern sharks began to evolve with them.
By the Cretaceous Period (145-66 million years ago), sharks were common worldwide. Then, the world went through its fifth mass extinction event. That extinction event killed off most of the largest shark species.
Megalodons — The World’s Ancient Behemoths
During the Palaeogene era (66-23 million years ago), Otodus obliquus appeared. These sharks were the closest ancestors to megalodon (Otodus megalodon).
Who is Megalodon?
Megalodon was the largest shark to have ever existed on earth. It is considered one of the world’s most formidable predators.
Many people believe that megalodons were related to great white sharks. If you’ve ever watched a movie with a supersized shark, they look just like massive great white sharks. But megalodon was not related to great white sharks. They didn’t even look like them.
The ancestors of great white sharks evolved around 45 million years ago. They likely competed with megalodon for food. Great white sharks more likely evolved from broad-toothed mako sharks.
Megadelons are thought to be the last species from a separate shark lineage. Their jaws are more compact than great white sharks. Their nose, or rostrum, is also shorter.
Their pectoral fins were longer than a great white shark’s. Not to mention, most great white sharks only grow to about 16 ft (4.9 m) in length.
Researchers estimate that megalodons could grow up to 60 ft (18.3 m). They are about three times the size of the average great white shark. Today, the biggest fish in the ocean are whale sharks which only reach 18-32.5 ft (5.5-9.9 m) in length.
The name “megalodon” translates to “large tooth.” Each megalodon tooth can grow up to 7 in (17.8 cm) long. Due to their sheer size, megalodons likely preyed on other sharks and whales.
Their massive jaws measured an estimated 9×11 ft (2.7X3.4 m) with a bite force of about 40,000 pounds per square inch.
Comparatively, Tyrannosaurus rex only had a bite force of 12,000 pounds per square inch. A human’s bite force is a measly 160 pounds per square inch.
There was a mix of circumstances that likely led to the extinction of the megalodon. The earth’s climate began to change rapidly. Temperatures dropped to much lower temperatures than usual. Megalodons were warm-water fish, so their livable habitats shrunk.
The warm-water prey megalodon ate also began to die off and disappear. Plus, megalodons had to compete with great white sharks and killer sperm whales for food. It’s likely that there just wasn’t enough food or habitat for them to survive.
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Can Sharks Live If They Stop Swimming?
Most sharks cannot live if they stop swimming. They must continually swim for water to move across their gills for them to breathe. Most shark species suffocate if they stop swimming for a long enough period of time.
Some species, like the nurse shark, can continue breathing while not swimming. Nurse sharks exhibit “buccal pumping.” They use their cheek muscles to draw water into their mouths and over the gills.
They also have spiracles behind the eyes. The spiracles force water across their gills while resting if their mouth is closed.
Do Sharks Drown If They Stay Still?
Most sharks do not have buccal pumps or spiracles that allow them to breathe if they stay still. Sharks like great white, mako, and whale sharks exhibit obligate ram ventilation.
Obligate ram ventilation is where sharks must swim with their mouths open to breathe. While they swim, water pushes into their mouth and across the gills for breathing. Sharks that stop swimming also stop receiving oxygen and die. Inured sharks unable to swim slowly suffocate until they die.
Do Sharks Sleep?
Most sharks do not truly “sleep,” but go into periods of rest. These sharks go into a state of rest where their eyes are open. Having their eyes open allows them to watch their surroundings and continue moving. Buccal-pumping sharks and those with spiracles can be stationary while they rest.
Since most sharks must continue swimming to breathe, it was long thought that sharks don’t sleep at all. Recently, Australian researchers documented the first case of a sleeping bottom-dwelling shark.
The team studied draughtsboard sharks who are native to New Zealand. They are buccal-pumping sharks. This is a characteristic that allows them to truly sleep when resting.
When the sharks rested for over five minutes, their oxygen levels dropped. The drop in oxygen signifies they were drifting into sleep.
What Happens When Sharks Turn Upside Down?
When you turn a shark upside down, they enter a “tonic immobility” state similar to hypnosis. Researchers often turn sharks upside down to subdue them into a trance-like state. Placing them in such a position reduces struggling and the chance of injury.
Researchers believe that turning a shark on their back disorients them. It causes their bodies to enter a stupor. Their muscles begin to relax, and their breathing becomes deeper. As soon as researchers flip the sharks’ right-side-up, the sharks return to normal.
Some sharks enter tonic immobility intentionally in the wild. Researchers aren’t sure why they do this, but it may be related to mating.
Can You Keep Great Whites In Captivity?
Keeping great white sharks in captivity is incredibly difficult. So, they are not housed in any aquariums worldwide. The Monetary Bay Aquarium in California did house great whites at one time for research. The task was extremely trying.
The aquarium housed the sharks for research purposes. Now, the research team’s questions have all been answered.
All the great white sharks in the aquarium have since been released. The aquarium does not plan to house any more great white sharks in the future.