Great white sharks are among the most feared predators, and groundbreaking new research off the coast of South Africa suggests these incredible fish found along coasts around the world can change color to better hunt their prey .

Sounds terrifying, right?

Officials point out that while shark attacks on humans are rare, they do happen.

This is especially true in the northeastern United States. Beaches in New York and New Jersey have seen a series of shark sightings and attacks this summer, putting swimmers on edge.

Since the unofficial start of summer over Memorial Day weekend, beach officials have used drones, helicopters and beach closures to prevent a life-threatening shark encounter after at least five people were bitten by a shark.

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Yet when you look beyond the fact that these torpedo-like fish weigh between 1,500 and 4,000 pounds and are armed with hundreds of sharp, pointed, and roughly serrated teeth that can tear through flesh and bone to swallow their food. entire, they are fascinating. creatures.

For starters, great white sharks have seven senses, including all the senses we use as humans: hearing, smell, vision, touch, and taste.

But they have two more that set them apart: the lateral line and Lorenzini, which NOAA Fisheries says were discovered within the last 10 to 20 years.

The lateral line is a band of sensory cells that runs along the shark’s body under its skin and helps detect the slightest vibrations in the water. It is beneficial when hunting for food or if a potential predator is nearby.

According to SharkTrust.org, sharks also have a complex electro-sensory system aided by receptors covering the shark’s head and snout that sit in jelly-filled sensory organs called ampullae of Lorenzini. This helps the shark detect weak electric fields such as those generated by the Earth or the muscle contractions of their prey.

Earth’s geomagnetic field is also thought to help sharks navigate the world’s oceans and migrate long distances with equal precision, according to SharkTrust.org.

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The sneak attack

Sharks typically ambush their prey by rushing from the ocean floor to the surface to surprise their next meal and inflict a big, often fatal bite. Once the animal is thrown into the air, the shark will retreat and wait for the animal to fall back into the water, continuing its attack and devouring its food.

But wouldn’t the animals know that a shark is hiding below them while they swim? New research suggests that sometimes sharks can change color to blend in with their surroundings.

How is it possible? Gibbs Kuguru had the same thought.

Kuguru is a shark scientist and PhD student at Wageningen University and research in the Netherlands and conducts research on fish skin.

“I started my research on shark skin when I heard about some sharks in the Maldives that had developed a very peculiar skin deformity called leucism,” Kuguru said.

Leucism is a skin condition that causes loss of pigmentation.

“The presence of leucism raised many questions that led me to investigate the causes of the deformity, which taught me a lot about sharkskin makeups and the different adaptations they can have,” Kuguru said.

And while working in a cage diving company with great white sharks, he started thinking.

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“I often heard people say, ‘Whoa! That shark just changed color!'” Kuguru said. “Every time this happened I wondered if it was real or if our eyes were playing tricks on us. Together with my mentor, Ryan Johnson, we decided to put this angler story to the test.”

That’s when Kuguru and Johnson designed the experiment to determine if great white sharks do indeed change color.

The pair headed to a shark hotspot off the coast of South Africa, where the experiments would take place.

They created an array of grayscale colors that would float in the water behind a boat and used a decoy food source to bait the great white sharks. As the sharks crossed the surface, they photographed them against the color board.

“The color chart was a game-changer when it came to observing the animal’s shadow differences,” Kuguru said. “Nevertheless, the technique we used to ‘track’ the sharks that were around on any given day is an ancient technique that we still use. This technique is called ‘photo ID’.”

Kuguru said the technique uses photos of sharks and their distinctive characteristics to identify those that are continually spotted near the boat.

“The sharks usually stay for a few weeks, but sometimes we have very residential great whites that we see over the years,” he said. “We normally name these sharks, and they’re usually good candidates for tagging, depending on the project.”

Extraordinary discovery in the lab

However, tracking sharks is not a simple task. Kuguru said his ability to locate great white sharks came from years of collaborative efforts between scientists, shark tour operators and local fishermen.

“Without that, I would never have seen a single shark,” he said. “Once we found the sharks, it was up to me to enter the cage with my dart gun and get a tissue sample from the shark.”

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Kuguru said the sharks will move quickly, so collecting skin samples requires a steady hand.

“My shot has to be decisive to get the fabric right and also not to hurt the shark,” he said.

The time was counted once the sample was taken.

“With the tissue samples from the sharks, we had to rush to the lab in order to get confirmation that these sharks indeed have the ability to modulate their color,” Kuguru said.

Back at the lab, tests were performed on the shark’s skin.

“We did this by treating the skin with hormones that their skin cells would be sensitive to,” Kuguru said.

And the results have been extraordinary.

“Interestingly, we found that not only did the skin respond to hormones, but it did so in striking and definitive ways.”

Scientists observed that shark skin turned darker when treated with one hormone and lighter when treated with another.

While this amazing finding doesn’t fully determine whether great white sharks have the ability to camouflage themselves, it is an interesting finding.

Further studies and experiments will be performed to learn more about this exciting possibility.

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