Shark Soirée: Do great whites make social connections?

Reference: Papastamatiou, Yannis P., et al. “Social dynamics and individual hunting tactics of white sharks revealed by biologging.” Biology Letters 18.3 (2022): 20210599. Doi:

Curious Communications

When asked to think about social marine animals, many people may consider a pod of whales or dolphins, or perhaps a school of fish swimming in near synchronicity. Most people would not imagine a creature such as a great white shark. While these incredible predators do not swim together in large groups, they are not entirely solitary. And though seeing multiple great whites together on the water’s surface is a rare occurrence, that doesn’t mean that they never socially interact with each other under the water, where humans cannot easily observe them. This is why a team of scientists headed by the Institute of Environment at Florida International University decided to investigate when and how often these elusive great white shark meetings are actually occurring.

A great white shark as seen off the coast of Guadalupe Island, Mexico. This island is a popular spot for cage diving activities due to its shark activity, so sightings such as this are common. Image by Horizon Charters via Wikimedia Commons.

Irregular Interactions

The team went to Guadalupe Island off the coast of Mexico to hunt for great whites, as this island is home to seasonal groups of animals such as seals, sea lions, and squid – all tasty great white shark meals. Between 2015 and 2018, they were able to tag six great whites with dataloggers that determined their location, speed, and direction, as well as captured video. Thirty-seven additional sharks were tagged with acoustic detectors, which recorded sounds from the sharks and the waters around them.

The main result from the collected data was that while sharks do seem to socially interact with each other, there is a lot of individual variation. Some sharks were associating with each other throughout the day, while others mainly sought out other great whites in the mid-afternoon, spending much of the rest of the day in solitude. Most great whites examined did not have a preference for interacting with male or female sharks, and while there were a few strong social associations between sharks, where individuals swam near each other for long periods of time, most social associations were weak. Many of the meetings occurred at water depths less than 100 meters deep, which is relatively shallow compared to the depths that these sharks are typically feeding at (i.e. below 200 meters).

The Guadalupe fur seal. This animal is mostly found on Guadalupe Island, and so makes them a popular prey item for the sharks that swim around this area. Scientists think that spotting prey such as this is a main reason why great white sharks may socially interact with each other. Image by NOAA via Wikimedia Commons.

Prosperous Predators

It appears that much like a family dog or cat, individual great white sharks have different personalities, and those personalities affect when and how often they want to be around other sharks. Some are content to see other sharks all day, while some limit their contact. All of the sharks examined did interact with other sharks though, however briefly, indicating that there is a normal social component to great white shark life, at least near Guadalupe Island. The research team thinks that these sharks are using each other to find out information about the location of nearby prey or dead animals. Many of the meetings occurred very close to areas with a large amount of prey, and multiple sharks have often been spotted at the site of very recent kills. While the social interactions of great white sharks may not be as strong as those of animals that live and travel together in groups, the fact that they exist shows that there is much more to these animals than an excellent sense of smell and good hunting instincts.

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