Of all the sharks you can see at the Tennessee Aquarium, the Sand Tiger Shark is undoubtedly the most physically imposing. This Atlantic species can reach 10 feet from fin to snout and can weigh up to 250 pounds. Visitors to the Secret Reef exhibit undoubtedly have felt some sense of trepidation at first sight of these massive predators cruising through the water, rows of razor-sharp teeth peeking out from their gaping mouths.
Yet the Sand Tiger is a more gentle giant than you might guess, preferring to avoid any interaction with our divers. And like many shark species, they’re more vulnerable than their appearance suggests. In the wild, populations of Sand Tigers are rapidly declining worldwide. Harvest of Sand Tigers caused their numbers to fall by 90 percent in the ’80s and ’90s.
Despite the defense of federal protection, however, Sand Tigers have been slow to bounce back, primarily due to their slow reproductive process. Females take as many as six years to reach maturity, after which their litters consist of one or two pups every two years.
Although they seem conspicuous in the 600,000-gallon Secret Reef exhibit, they are elusive in the wild. Consequently, many behavioral nuances of wild Sand Tigers remain unknown to marine scientists.
In an effort to better understand their reproductive behavior and habitat use, researchers last year began an oceanic expedition to implant acoustic tags in wild Sand Tigers.
This collaborative study is led by The North Carolina Aquariums and OCEARCH, a non-profit with global cache as a specialist in studying apex marine predators. Using OCEARCH’s specialized research vessel, scientists hope to capture and tag 30 mature female Sand Tigers. The tags, which were purchased through financial support from the Tennessee Aquarium, will help scientists to track Sand Tigers’ movement through the ocean to determine the habitats in which they breed, gestate and, eventually, raise their young.
“These tags were very similar to the acoustic tags we are using to monitor the movement of Lake Sturgeon in the Tennessee River,” said Jackson Andrews, the Aquarium’s Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. “Each time a tagged shark passes by a receiving station, information about that animal is recorded. Project managers will get data over a relatively long period of time.”
Using information from tagged sharks, scientists will eventually be able to draft an effective plan for their conservation, said Madeline Marens, lead scientist and aquarist with the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.
“Successful conservation of Sand Tiger populations firstly depends on better understanding on biology and secondly on management of critical habitat,” Marens said.
So as you peer into the depths at Sand Tigers lurking in the Secret Reef, know that they’re more threatened than they are threatening.
Your visit is helping to support efforts to understand these enigmatic predators, and if that’s not enough to make you feel a sense of satisfaction during Shark Week, nothing will.
“Sand Tiger Sharks have a place in the ocean, and we would like to continue to see them thrive,” Andrews said. “It’s important for us to participate with other organizations in scientific efforts to better understand these threatened animals to help ensure their future survival.”
Coming up on Aug. 4, two special screenings of the thrilling documentary “Shark Clans” at IMAX will give you the adrenaline-pumping sensation of cage diving with Great White Sharks, another fearsome, oft-misunderstood species. The film, which was shot by Chattanooga-based Nature Films Network, focuses on research by a team of Australian scientists to tag and photo-document groups of Great White Sharks that travel together and return to the same location annually. Proceeds from these screenings will be directed toward funding the Aquarium’s support of the ongoing Sand Tiger Shark study.