All About Great White Sharks: The Great Pointer Shark 

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 2nd December 2023

NameGreat White SharkDietCarnivorous
Scientific nameCarcharodon carchariasWeight522 to 1,110 kilograms (1,151 to 2,450 pounds) 
Pronunciationgrayt wite shaarkLength3.4 to 4.9 meters (11 to 16 feet) 
ClassificationChondrichthyes, Lamniformes, LamnidaeLocationWorldwide

The Great White Shark

great white shark
Great white shark cruising below the ocean surface. | Steve Hinczynski via Getty Images

When people think of sharks, the picture that comes to mind is likely that of the great white shark.

This species of mackerel shark is one of the most iconic shark species in the world. 

Known for its large size and permanent toothy grin, the great white shark is a top marine predator found in all major oceans all over the world. 

It preys on various animals, including fish, other sharks, seabirds, and marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. 

As an apex predator, the great white shark is rarely attacked by other sea creatures. 

Gage Beasley's Great White Shark Soft Stuffed Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Great White Shark Soft Stuffed Plush Toy

In fact, the only known natural predator of this shark is the killer whale (orca).

However, the species is still under serious threat due to human activities such as illegal fishing and pollution, which has led to their decline in recent years.  

The great white shark is one of the most publicly-feared shark species in the world. 

Interestingly, their elusive nature means there’s a lot we do not know about the life and behavior of this top marine predator. 

In this article, we’ll explore some of the well-established facts about the great white shark, including their physical attributes, diet, habitats, behavior, and ecological significance. 

Taxonomy and Classification

great white shark
A great white shark swimming with a slight smile on its face | Philip Thurston via Getty Images

The scientific name of the great white shark is Carcharodon carcharias

It is sometimes referred to as the white pointer or simply as the white shark. 

The shark’s nickname is a reference to the color of its underbelly, which is a distinct white color, but its topside is typically brown or gray. 

The great white is the only living species in the Carcharodon genus. 

This cartilaginous fish is a type of mackerel shark, meaning it belongs to the order Lamniformes. 

The great white shark is one of the five living species in the lamnid shark family. 

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Other members of this family include the salmon shark, porbeagle, and mako shark. 

Mackerel sharks, in general, have been around for millions of years. 

The oldest member of this group still living today is the carpet shark, which has been around since the Jurassic Period. 

The great white shark evolved between 60 and 43 million years ago. 

Their closest living relatives are the mako sharks. 

Cretalamna, a shark genus that lived about 60 million years ago, is considered the common ancestor of all the lamnid sharks. 

Physical Characteristics

great white shark
See the torpedo? | Philip Thurston via Getty Images

The great white is a large shark species known for its distinct torpedo-shaped body. 

It has a sharply pointed conical snout that extends slightly beyond its mouth. 

Great whites have a large pectoral fin and prominent triangular-shaped dorsal fins. 

They also have a powerful crescent-shaped tail. 

The tail fin is heterocercal, meaning the upper lobe is larger than the lower lobe.

Great white sharks exhibit sexual dimorphism, with females being larger than males. 

The average length of a great white male is about 3.4 to four meters (11 to 13 feet), while they weigh about 522 to 771 kilograms (1,151 to 1,700 pounds). 

Females, on the other hand, have an average body length of about 4.6 to 4.9 meters (15 to 16 feet). 

Mature females weigh between 680 and 1,110 kilograms (1,500–2,450 pounds). 

The largest great white shark on record is a female that was about 6.1 meters (20 feet) long and weighed 1,905 kilograms (4,200 pounds).

great white shark
Look at the sheer size of the Great White Shark | USO via Getty Images

One of the most distinctive features of the great white shark is its fearsome mouth.

With numerous serrated, triangular teeth numbering over 300, the great white dentition is efficient for gripping and tearing prey.

Each tooth is over 2.5 inches long and arranged in multiple rows in the shark’s jaws. 

Although they only use one set at a time, the extra rows grow as a replacement for their main teeth if they get broken or damaged. 

Great whites exhibit countershading. 

Their dorsal side is typically brown or gray, while their underside is a distinct white. 

This stark contrast allows the great white to blend in better with its surroundings. 

Like other mackerel shark species, great whites have large eyes. 

Their eyes are larger than that of any other shark species (in proportion to body size). 

The iris of their eyes also tend to have a deep blue color instead of the black observed in other species. 

Habitat and Distribution

The great white shark lives in temperate and tropical waters worldwide. 

It is mainly found in coastal and off-shore waters from the surface to depths of about 1,300 meters (4,265 feet) on average. 

Great whites prefer water temperatures of about 12 to 24 °C (54 and 75 °F).

Although they have a worldwide distribution, great whites are mainly associated with places like the United States (Northeast and California), Australia, South Africa, Japan, Chile, and the Mediterranean region. 

The Dyer Island of South Africa hosts one of the densest populations of great whites in the world. 

great white shark
Great white shark nearby Dyer Island, South Africa | BartCo via Getty Images

The distribution and abundance of great white sharks follow the availability of their typical prey. 

They mostly live in highly productive temperate coastal waters with an abundance of fish and marine mammals. 

The great white shark is an epipelagic fish, meaning it lives in the open ocean.

They do spend a lot of time in coastal waters, which has led to the notion that they’re primarily coastal species. 

Behavior and Social Structure

great white shark
Approaching Great White Shark near Isla Guadalupe in Pacific Ocean | wo40 via Getty Images

Great white sharks exhibit a wide range of complex behaviors, many of which we are yet to understand due to their elusive nature. 

These sharks are not strictly territorial. 

However, they show some level of site fidelity, meaning they will remain around areas with abundant prey for long periods.

They may also make lengthy migratory journeys in search of food and will return to specific feeding and breeding grounds seasonally. 

Great white sharks are highly migratory, with a migration pattern influenced by factors like prey availability, temperature, and breeding. 

For instance, females tend to migrate to warmer waters to give birth to their young. 

However, not all great whites migrate this way. 

Some individuals remain within their feeding area throughout the year, while others may migrate widely beyond their established feeding area. 

The social behavior of great white sharks isn’t well documented. 

great white shark
A Great White Shark swimming through a school of mackerel in the Pacific ocean | cdascher via Getty Images

Like other large predators, they’re largely solitary, but individuals may also form loose associations or aggregations. 

In such aggregations, there are no complex social structures.

However, there’s evidence that some sharks may establish dominance hierarchies within their loose social groups. 

Such hierarchies are based on size, age, and gender. 

Given their bigger size, females often dominate males while males hold a higher position over smaller males. 

Resident sharks within an area are also very likely to dominate newcomers. 

White sharks may also pair up or form small clans that travel and hunt prey together for long periods. 

Some studies also suggest that great white individuals may interact with each other and share information about the location of prey or carcasses that can be scavenged. 

Great whites are renowned for their curiosity. 

great white shark
Great White Shark spy-hopping | Connah via Getty Images

They have been known to approach objects in and above the water surface to investigate. 

They may stick their head out of the water to gaze at prey and other objects. 

This behavior is known as spy-hopping. 

The blacktip reef shark is the only species known to exhibit this behavior other than the great white. 

Great white sharks are generally crepuscular or nocturnal hunters. 

This means they’re more active at night or during dark periods of the day, such as at dawn or dusk. 

However, they may also be active during the day, depending on environmental conditions and the availability of prey. 

They often spend a significant amount of time near the water’s surface, patrolling areas of the coast where prey is most abundant. 

Diet and Feeding

great white shark
Great White Shark ready to eat | Peter_Nile via Getty Images

Great white sharks are carnivores. 

As a formidable apex predator, they have a diverse diet, which may include various kinds of marine animals.

A great white’s diet changes over the course of its development.

Newborns and juveniles prey mainly on fish and other sharks. 

As they grow, their preference shifts to larger prey such as sea turtles and marine mammals like seals, dolphins, sea lions, and whales. 

Their preferred prey may also depend on their location. 

For instance, adult white sharks in Australia prey mainly on pelagic and coastal fish species that are abundant in this location. 

They may also act as scavengers, preying on the carcasses of large whales and other marine animals. 

Great white sharks are the largest macropredatory shark species in the world. 

great white shark
Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias) breaching in an attack | USO via Getty Images

They are efficient hunters known to hunt prey by ambush. 

They approach prey stealthily, then launch a surprise attack when they get close enough, inflicting a massive fatal bite. 

In many cases, the intense impact of the great white’s initial attack is enough to stun the prey, immobilizing the animal temporarily before launching a final, fatal attack. 

The shark may also chase prey at high speeds if they miss the initial attack. 

When attacking larger or potentially dangerous prey, great white sharks may use a bite-and-spit strategy. 

This involves taking a large bite out of the prey’s hindquarters and then waiting for it to bleed to death. 

The great white cannot chew food. 

When the shark bites into prey, it wiggles its head vigorously from side to side, ripping off mouth-sized pieces, which are then swallowed whole. 

Reproduction and Life Cycle

great white shark
Juvenile Great White Shark | EMPPhotography via Getty Images

Great white sharks have a slow reproduction rate, which isn’t surprising given the animal’s enormous size. 

Males are not sexually mature until they’re about 26 years old, while females may take up to 33 years before reaching maturity.

After attaining maturity, they only give birth to young every two or three years. 

Very little is known about the mating habits of this shark species because they have only been observed mating a few times. 

Experts think great whites likely mate in shallow waters away from their typical feeding areas. 

Great whites likely roll belly to belly during copulation. 

Great white sharks are ovoviviparous.

This means the embryos develop internally, but they do not take nutrients from the mother. 

great white shark
A large female Great White Shark | Alessandro De Maddalena via Getty Images

Births have never been observed, but females typically migrate to warm, shallow waters to give birth. 

Great white shark litter usually consists of two to 17 pups.

Pups can be up to four feet long and are fully independent at birth. 

The mother provides no parental care and may even eat her young. 

Great white pups hunt fish and other small marine animals in their early years.

They grow at a fast rate of about 12 inches per year for the first five to six years of life.

Their diet also changes as they grow, and they move from shallow to deep waters. 

Great white sharks have an average lifespan of about 70 years, with males living longer than females. 

Ecological Role and Interactions

great white shark
No escape for you, seal! | USO via Getty Images

The great white shark, as an apex predator, plays a significant role in regulating the population of prey species like seals, sea lions, whales, and various kinds of fish species. 

By controlling the population of these prey species, great whites promote the health and diversity of the entire ecosystem.

While great white sharks do not engage in traditional symbiotic relationships, their predatory role can indirectly benefit other species.

For instance, the remains of prey killed by large predators like the great white sharks often serve as food for scavengers, which may include other sharks, large fish, and deep-sea organisms. 

You wouldn’t want to see this view | Philip Thurston via Getty Images

Given their size and status as apex predators, great white sharks have a few natural enemies. 

Young great white sharks are often eaten by larger sharks (including other great whites). 

In fact, only a small percentage of juveniles make it into adulthood. 

However, adults have very few natural predators. 

The only animals they seem to fear are the killer whales (orcas). 

There have been a few instances of killer whales attacking and killing an adult great white. 

Conservation Status and Threats

Great White Shark swimming with a school of fish | Philip Thurston via Getty Images

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), little is known about the population trend and distribution of the great white shark. 

However, we know that they have a very slow reproduction rate and are uncommon compared to other widely distributed shark species. 

Based on this, the great white shark has been categorized as a vulnerable species by the IUCN, meaning they’re at risk of extinction. 

Humans are the biggest threat to great white shark populations. 

They are caught commercially in many countries, mainly for food. 

Great white sharks are among the major victims of finning (the practice of harvesting sharks for their dorsal and lateral fins). 

Due to their size and ferocity, great whites are also targeted by sport anglers.  

Upper teeth of Great White Shark | Alessandro De Maddalena via Getty Images

The large conical teeth are considered treasured jewelry, and the jaws of large sharks can fetch thousands of dollars. 

In some countries and regions, there are now laws to protect great whites and other shark species currently facing a declining population. 

For instance, in the United States and the Mediterranean, targeting great whites or harvesting their fins when caught as bycatch is illegal. 

In New Zealand, fishing a great white shark carries a maximum penalty of up to $250,000 fine and six months in prison. 

Similarly, Australia’s environmental laws include great white sharks as one of the protected species. 

In addition to these local and regional laws, great whites are protected by international treaties such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the Convention on Migratory Species. 

In addition to overfishing, other threats faced by this shark species include habitat degradation due to development projects, climate change, and pollution. 

Unique Adaptations and Survival Strategies

The magnificent Great White Shark | cdascher via Getty Images

The great white shark’s streamlined body is one of its most significant adaptations. 

Lamnid sharks are generally among the fastest-swimming sharks in the world. 

Although the great white shark is not as quick as other lamnid sharks due to its size, it is still an efficient swimmer that can reach top speeds of up to 40 kilometers per hour (25 miles per hour). 

The large fins and crescent-shaped tail of this shark contribute to its efficient and swift swimming ability, which is valuable for hunting prey and evading potential threats.

Great sharks are also regarded as efficient hunters thanks to their formidable dentition. 

The shark’s teeth consist of up to 300 serrated teeth with a triangular shape that enhances grip and sharpness. 

Great whites have multiple rows of teeth that are continuously replaced, ensuring a constant supply of sharp teeth throughout the shark’s life. 

The shark’s dentition also gives it a stronger bite force that’s more than 20 times that of a human’s.

An adult great white can deliver a bite force of up to 18,216 newtons (4,095 pound-force).

Like other mackerel shark species, great white sharks have specialized electroreceptors on their snout. 

A close-up of the Great White Shark’s snout | Philip Thurston via Getty Images

This allows the shark to detect weak electric fields generated by prey animals. 

The sensory organ enhances the shark’s ability to locate prey, even when hidden or obscured by obstacles in the water. 

In addition, the great white shark’s sense of smell is also well-developed. 

They can pick up the scent of prey over long distances and detect the smell of a single drop of blood in the water from up to one-third of a mile (0.53 kilometers) away. 

While most fish species are cold-blooded, great sharks have the unique ability to keep their body temperature above the surrounding water temperature. 

Their complex circulatory system allows them to conserve body heat through a series of muscle contractions. 

The heat generated is then circulated throughout the shark’s body. 

This phenomenon is known as regional endothermy. 

Maintaining a high temperature this way allows the shark to thrive in a wide range of water temperatures. 

Cultural Significance and Human Interactions

Great White Shark amongst a school of fish | Nautilus Creative via Getty Images

The great white shark is one of the most recognizable shark species in the world. 

This is partly due to the shark’s representation in the popular 1975 Jaws movie, which starred a massive great white shark. 

The great white is the shark species most commonly implicated in shark attacks, especially in areas where they’re most common. 

Great whites have been known to attack swimmers, divers, kayakers, and small boats. 

In a few cases, great white sharks have attacked boats up to 10 meters (33 feet) long. 

Despite the fearsome reputation of this shark as a ferocious man-eater, experts think great white sharks don’t attack humans intentionally. 

At least five to 10 great white shark attacks are recorded yearly, but these are likely due to the shark’s curiosity rather than a deliberate intent to prey on humans. 

In most cases, the shark only takes a sample bite out of curiosity but does not return for a second bite. 

Most people attacked this way are often able to escape to safety, but a more serious bite may result in death. 

The great white shark’s formidable reputation has made it a popular subject in the tourism industry. 

People in certain regions undertake underwater shark-watching excursions and cage-diving adventures to observe the sharks up close. 

Unfortunately, attempts to keep great white sharks in captivity have been unsuccessful due to their large size, migratory behavior, and unique feeding requirements. 

Future Prospects and Research

Too close? | MediaProduction via Getty Images

The great white shark is one of the most studied shark species in the world. 

Despite this, there’s still much to discover about them due to their widespread distribution and elusive nature. 

In recent years, researchers have been leveraging satellite tags and acoustic tracking devices to better understand the distribution and migratory patterns of the great white sharks. 

Studies like this will contribute to our understanding of the population trend and movement of this shark species. 

Future research in this area will also aid conservation strategies as it will help us identify critical habitats and migration corridors of great white sharks that need to be protected. 

Improvement in these tracking technologies may also make it possible to observe some of the little-known behaviors of this shark species, such as their mating or courtship behavior. 

In addition to ecological studies, researchers are also trying to explore and understand the physiological adaptations of the great white shark (especially their thermoregulatory capabilities). 

Research in this area will improve our understanding of how the sharks tolerate various oceanic conditions and how this influences their distribution. 


The great white shark is the world’s largest predatory fish. 

They live in oceans all over the world and are well-adapted to various conditions. 

The toothy marine predator has more than 300 teeth in its massive jaws and can prey on different types of prey, including fish and marine mammals. 

They are fast and efficient simmers that can cruise efficiently for long periods or burst into a high-speed chase to catch prey. 

Despite their reputation as fearsome man-eating monsters popularized by movies like Jaws, great white sharks rarely prey on humans. 

Great white sharks are important apex predators that contribute to the overall balance of the aquatic ecosystem. 

This is why we must learn more about them and contribute more towards efforts to protect the species from decline and eventual extinction. 


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