The oceanic whitetip shark is one of the most widely ranging sharks, common throughout the warm latitudes of all oceans. It lives in the open ocean, where it is a predator at the top of pelagic food webs. This species gets its common name from the white tips of its dorsal, pectoral, and tail fins. The dorsal and pectoral fins are distinctly rounded rather than pointed like in many other shark species.
Oceanic whitetip sharks feed on a variety of pelagic bony fishes (including skipjack tuna, common dolphinfish, and others) and squids. They are a primary component of shark feeding frenzies caused when mixed groups of predatory species feed together. Though it typically eats fishes and squids, this species has been known to take a variety of prey, including sea turtles, seabirds, and perhaps marine mammals. The oceanic whitetip shark is one of the shark species that never stops moving. Because they cannot pump water across their gills, they must constantly swim forward with their mouths slightly open in order to obtain sufficient oxygen from the water.
This species reproduces via internal fertilization and gives birth to well developed, live young. While inside the mother’s abdomen, embryos receive nourishment from yolk sacs that are also connected to the uterine wall. Using this means, mothers exchange nutrients with their embryos until they mature.
Though the oceanic whitetip shark is one of the few species of sharks known to have bitten and killed humans, these incidents are rare and are almost certainly a case of mistaken identity. On the other hand, oceanic whitetip sharks are targeted widely in commercial fisheries. This species’ fins are some of the most highly desirable for shark fin soup. This high targeted catch and the accidental capture of the oceanic whitetip shark in fisheries targeting other species have driven down its populations significantly, and they continue to trend downward. Scientists now believe this shark to be vulnerable to extinction, and it is provided legal protection in many places. Without careful management of this once common species, its continued existence as an important top predator in open ocean food webs may be at risk of being lost.
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.