This year, we have seen a dramatic increase in shark attacks off the coast of the Carolinas. Not surprisingly, most of these attacks have been in North Carolina. This fits with the historical record, where North Carolina tends to have more shark attacks per year — and more dangerous attacks. The most recent shark attack fatality recorded in North Carolina was in 2001, compared to 1852 for South Carolina.
Fortunately, no one has been killed in the recent attacks, but some have suffered serious injuries. Others have more mild injuries. The severity of injuries depends on the type of the shark, and therefore its teeth. Some sharks are just not capable of inflicting serious injury, but others can be very dangerous.
Understanding Shark Teeth
Sharks are a very old type of creature, appearing in the fossil record before other fish. They have become a very diverse population in this time, with a wide range of lifestyles, which is reflected in their teeth.
There are four main types of teeth that sharks have. Some sharks have tiny, nonfunctional teeth. These sharks are filter-feeders, like baleen whales, and their teeth are vestigial. This includes the largest sharks, the whale shark and the basking shark.
Other teeth have stout, flat teeth. These teeth are used like nutcrackers on the clams and crabs these sharks eat. Nurse sharks and angel sharks have this kind of teeth. They rarely attack people, and when they do, the attack isn’t very serious.
Other sharks have narrow, needle-like teeth. These sharks use their teeth to grab small fish, including other sharks, and swallow them whole. These sharks commonly attack people, mostly in confusion because there are fish around, but the injuries aren’t very serious. The shark will typically bite and let go. Lemon sharks and sand sharks have this kind of tooth.
Finally, there is the most dangerous type of shark tooth, a triangular tooth with serrated edges, what most of us think of when we imagine shark teeth. These teeth are designed for biting chunks of flesh off large prey, such as seals, turtles, and whales. Sharks with these teeth can cause serious injuries and kill people. A single bite can slice into a person, taking off a limb or causing a serious wound in the body. And the shark may continue to attack, considering a person to be a reasonable prey animal. Great white sharks, blue sharks, and bull sharks have this kind of tooth.
Why the Spike in Shark Attacks
There are many reasons why shark attacks are up this year. First, shark attacks have been steadily increasing as more people spend more time in the water. Americans make more than 2 billion visits to the beach each year. A small number of shark attacks is to be expected.
Next, some people have reported increased numbers of bait fish swimming close to shore along the Carolina coast. This may attract many sharks in close to land, and as the fish swim around people, people may get bit in error.
In addition, dangerous bull sharks have made a nursery in Pamlico Sound off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, and this is the time of year they come to shore to pup or spawn.
It’s important to remember, though, that even with the increased numbers of attacks, the odds of being attacked by a shark of the Carolina coast are very small.
What Makes Shark Teeth Enviable
One other facet of shark teeth bears mentioning: sharks can regrow their teeth constantly. They may have tens of thousands of teeth in a lifetime. Unfortunately, humans only get two sets of teeth, and we have to protect them or replace them with dental implants if they get lost.