Predatory behaviour of white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) at Seal Island, South Africa

R. Aidan Martin, Neil Hammerschlag, Ralph S. Collier, Chris Fallows

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

134 Scopus citations


Between 1997 and 2003, there were 2088 natural predations by white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) on Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) and 121 strikes on towed seal-shaped decoys were documented from observation vessels at Seal Island, South Africa. White sharks at Seal Island appear to selectively target lone, incoming young of the year Cape fur seals at or near the surface. Most attacks lasted <1 min and consisted of a single breach, with predatory success rate decreasing rapidly with increasing duration and number of subsequent breaches. A white shark predatory ethogram, composed of four phases and 20 behavioural units, is presented, including four varieties of initial strike and 11 subsequent behaviour units not previously defined in the literature. Behaviour units scored from 210 predatory attacks revealed that, for both successful and unsuccessful attacks, Polaris Breach was the most commonly employed initial strike, while Surface Lunge was the most frequent second event, closely followed by Lateral Snap. Examination of video footage, still images, and tooth impressions in decoys indicated that white sharks at Seal Island bite prey obliquely using their anterolateral teeth via a sudden lateral snap of the jaws and not perpendicularly with their anterior teeth, as previously supposed. Analysis of white shark upper tooth morphology and spacing suggest the reversed intermediate teeth of white sharks occur at the strongest part of the jaw and produce the largest wound. White shark predatory success at Seal Island is greatest (55%) within one hour of sunrise and decreases rapidly with increasing ambient light; the sharks cease active predation on seals when success rate drops to ±40%; this is the first evidence of cessation of foraging at unproductive times by any predatory fish. At Seal Island, white shark predatory success is significantly lower at locations where frequency of predation is highest, suggesting that white sharks may launch suboptimal strikes in areas of greatest intraspecific competition; this is the first evidence of social influence on predation in any elasmobranch. Idiosyncratic predatory behaviours and elevated success rates of known individual white sharks at Seal Island suggest some degree of trial-and-error learning. A hypothetical decision tree is proposed that models predatory behaviour of white sharks attacking Cape fur seals at the surface.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1121-1135
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom
Issue number5
StatePublished - Oct 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Aquatic Science


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