Tag Archives: sharks

Do Hammer-Shaped Heads Help Sharks Swim?

With their sandpaper skin, cartilage skeleton, electroreceptive sensors, and rows of dangerous teeth, sharks fascinate many people. However, even within this distinctive group the hammerhead sharks that make up the Sphyrnidae family have attracted a special attention due to the unusual shapes of their namesake heads, called cephalofoils. Several evolutionary benefits of the cephalofoil have been proposed by researchers. The wide hammer-shaped head may allow the shark to house more sensory receptors in its snout, to bludgeon prey, and to move and maneuver through the water more easily. Here we will address the question posed by the third theory: Does the cephalofoil found on hammerhead sharks provide an advantage in moving and maneuvering underwater?

Great Hammerhead Shark
Image of “Great Hammerhead Shark” by Wendell Reed showing a close-up of the cephalofoil. https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/3fa18a9b-9085-4867-93e1-15a88b01389b

Many advancements in the aviation and nautical industries have been developed from the study of sea creatures. There is certainly some potential that research into the mobility of sharks could someday be used as inspiration to advance locomotion technologies. In addition, a deeper understanding of the physiology and behavior of hammerhead sharks could help us to better preserve their habitat and species from endangerment – a crisis which some of them are already facing.

The theory that the cephalofoil provides advantages in forward swimming to hammerhead sharks relies on it supplying some hydrodynamic lift similar to the wing of an aircraft. Aircraft wings provide lift partly by creating a pressure difference between the top and bottom wing surfaces. An area of higher pressure on the bottom surface of a wing will generate upward lift. One study by Matthew Gaylord, Eric Blades, and Glenn Parsons applied a derivation of the Navier-Stokes equations – a set of partial differential equations for analyzing fluid flow – to water flow around digitized models of the heads of the eight most common species of hammerhead. It was found that in level, forward swimming there was some pressure differential that developed between the dorsal (top) and ventral (bottom) surfaces of the cephalofoil, but for each species it was very small and often in the direction to produce negative lift. The drag coefficients of the cephalofoil of each hammerhead species were then calculated and shown to increase as the size of the cephalofoil increased. The drag created by a cephalofoil was always much greater than the drags caused by the heads of a control group of non-hammerhead Carcharhinidae sharks.

Images of the pressure contours at zero angle of attack on the dorsal (top image) and ventral (bottom image) sides of the cephalofoil. The eight leftmost sharks are the hammerheads. Taken from Gaylord, Blades, Parsons.

However, the same study showed that the pressure difference between either surface of the cephalofoil did significantly increase in some species if the shark raised or lowered its head. This extra hydrodynamic force caused by the pressure differential at nonzero angles of attack would help the shark to turn its head up or down very quickly. This more explosive maneuverability was particularly present in the hammerheads that commonly feed on fish and less present in the species that feed predominantly on slower bottom dwellers. Another study by Stephen Kajiura, Jesica Forni, and Adam Summers theorized that the unbalanced, front-heavy cephalofoil may provide extra stability during tight turns by preventing banking. The unbalanced head would create a moment – or torque – to counteract the force from the tail that causes most sharks to roll into their turns. Not banking around turns could be important to some hammerhead sharks that often swim so close to the seafloor that banking into a turn could cause their head or fins to bump into the floor. It is likely that hammerhead sharks evolved the cephalofoil at least in part to provide more explosive and stable maneuvering.

Featured image “Hammerhead Shark” by bocagrandelasvegas.

Fish in Flight: The Science Behind Great White Breach Attacks on Cape Fur Seals

Great white shark employs vertical attack on prey decoy
Great white shark employs vertical attack on prey decoy – from Sharkcrew via Wikipedia Commons

If you’ve ever turned on Discovery channel during Shark Week, then you’ve probably seen the iconic footage of a 2.5-ton great white shark leaping out of the water to catch its next meal.  If you’re weird like me and you’ve ever tried to mimic one of these epic breaches in a backyard pool, then you realize just how difficult it is to generate enough momentum to jump even partway out of the water and therefore have a real appreciation for what it takes to pull off this incredible feat.

Great white breaks the ocean surface
Great white breaks the ocean surface – from Alex Steyn via Unsplash

So if a breach attack is so difficult to pull off, how are great white sharks able do it, and why do they do it?  As per usual, some basic physics can help us answer both these questions.


Great white shark mid-breach
Great white shark mid-breach – from Alex Steyn via Unsplash

According to a 2011 paper by Martin and Hammerschlag, who spent 13 years studying great white predation in South Africa, breach attacks allow great whites to play to their strengths and maximize stealth.

Millennia of evolution have left great whites with long bodies great for straight-line speed (can reach speeds  >11m/s) but not so great for agility. Additionally, roughly 95% of a great white’s muscle is white muscle, which allows for rapid contraction (e.g. speed bursts) but also results in poor endurance.  Considering these aspects of their physiological makeup, it’s in a great white’s best interest to attack swiftly, avoiding prolonged chases.  Martin and Hammerschlag report that the majority of great white attacks on seals are over within 2 minutes and that the longer an attack drags on, the less likely it is to be successful.

Great white shark chases decoy prey from behind
Great white shark chases decoy prey from behind – from Sharkcrew via Wikipedia Commons

As great whites are less agile than seals, maximizing stealth and minimizing the time seals have to react is imperative.  Having evolved to have a dark grey dorsal (top) surface, great whites are hard to distinguish from the coral on the ocean floor when viewed from above (seal’s perspective).  Additionally, since very little of the light entering the water is reflected back towards the surface, it is estimated that under even the best lighting conditions, a seal could only reliably distinguish a shark a maximum distance of roughly 5m below it, which explains why great whites attack from below rather than behind. Great whites need about 4m to reach top speed, so due to this acceleration distance and seal vision, Martin and Hammerschlag report that great white attacks generally start between 7m and 31m below the ocean surface, with the majority staring closer to 30m.  Looking at data for great white breach attacks ranging from vertical to 45 degree ascents, Martin and Hammerschlag estimate that it typically takes a shark between 2 and 2.5 seconds to go from initial acceleration to surface breach, and that when considering shark speed and average visibility conditions, a seal generally has only about 0.1 seconds to react if it spots the shark before contact is made.  Ultimately, due to the advantages it gives them, great whites are successful in over half their breach attacks when lighting conditions are ideal.

Schematic of geometry and optics of great white shark attacks on cape fur seals from Martin and Hammerschlag - not to scale
Schematic of geometry and optics of great white shark attacks on cape fur seals from Martin and Hammerschlag – not to scale


Sources & Further Reading:

Fallows, Chris & Aidan Martin, R & Hammerschlag, Neil. (2012). Predator-Prey Interactions between White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) and Cape Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) at Seal Island, South Africa and Comparisons with Patterns Observed at Other Sites

Martin, R. Aidan, and Neil Hammerschlag. “Marine Biology Research.” Marine Biology Research, vol. 8, no. 1, 30 Nov. 2011, pp. 90–94., doi:10.1080/17451000.2011.614255.

Egdall, Mark. “New Research Reveals Physics Behind Great White Shark Attacks.” Decoded Science, Decoded Science, 10 Dec. 2011, www.decodedscience.org/new-research-reveals-physics-behind-great-white-shark-attacks/7497.

Sloat, Sarah. “Shark Week: Here Is the Wild Physics of a Great White Leap.” Inverse, Inverse, 25 July 2018, www.inverse.com/article/47437-shark-week-great-white-jumps.

Madrigal, Alexis C. “The Physics of Great White Sharks Leaping Out of the Water to Catch Seals.” The Atlantic, The Atlantic Monthly Group, 9 Dec. 2011, www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/12/the-physics-of-great-white-sharks-leaping-out-of-the-water-to-catch-seals/249799/.