Did you know, the First Coast is home to 15 different species of sharks? But the hammerhead is quite unique. The unusual shape of its head helps to maximize its ability to hunt and sense electrical signals in the water. However, the species is extremely vulnerable.
That’s why a group of researchers are on a mission to study hammerhead babies to find out why they’re so sensitive.
“We fish for the newborns,” said UNF Shark Biology Program Director Dr. Jim Gelsleichter. “They’re only a foot or two long.”
With their tedious catch and release efforts, Dr. Gelsleichter’s team surveys the shark population, identifies different types of hammerheads, and studies how delicate these creatures are compared to other fish.
“Most shark populations on the east coast have rebounded to some extent, which demonstrates the effectiveness of conservation,” Gelsleichter explains. “But I’m not quite sure we’re there with the hammerhead yet.”
All sharks have special sensors on their heads, which pick up electrical signals from living creatures. These sensors are critical for the sharks’ survival – to navigate and to hunt. One theory suggests the evolution of the hammerheads head shape was to provide greater space for more sensors, making them very sensitive to electroreception. Hammerheads are also extremely sensitive if they get hooked – something researchers are still trying to understand.
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“It’s an important point that these guys are so sensitive that when fisherman catch them and if they fight them, even if they have the best intentions and they typically do, quite often they’re not going to make it.” added Gelsleichter.
The baby hammerhead sharks are born off the beaches in May or June. They then journey to inland waters where they spend the first chapter of their life.
The baby hammerheads they catch during their fishing trips are about one to two months old. They usually have a visible scar from their umbilical cord, kind of like a belly button for humans.
At the end of the summer, the sharks make their way back out into the Atlantic Ocean. It takes about ten years for a hammerhead to reach maturity. And while they may look innocent now, these fish can grow to 12 feet or more!
“Everybody is afraid of them you know because they have the big head, and the great hammerhead can grow quite large and there have been a few reports of hammerhead bites,” said Gelsleichter. “But hammerheads are not considered to be one of the most dangerous sharks.”
The bark, or in this case the looks, may be worse than the bite. But unfortunately, many species of hammerheads are at a high risk of extinction.
“The hammerhead is just different,” Gelsleichter commented.
Humans are the #1 threat to this species, but the scientific community hopes studies like Gelsleichter’s this will help bring awareness to these amazing animals.