11 Facts About Tiger Sharks

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Weighing 1300 pounds or more and growing up to 15 feet, the tiger shark is the fourth-largest shark on earth. (Only whale sharks, basking sharks, and great whites get bigger.) On top of being big, tiger sharks are also pretty bizarre: They literally eat garbage, give birth to massive litters—and one of them was a player in Australia’s greatest unsolved murder mystery.

1. THEY’RE LIKE SWIMMING GARBAGE DISPOSALS.

Tiger sharks have broad diets: They eat everything from albatrosses, venomous sea snakes, and other sharks to manmade objects like paint cans, leather jackets, rubber tires, and even license plates. (That scene in Jaws where Hooper pulls a Louisiana plate from the stomach of a dead tiger shark is scientifically accurate!)

2. DON’T CONFUSE THEM WITH SAND TIGER SHARKS.

You might assume that the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) and the sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus) are cousins, but the latter is more closely related to the great white (Carcharodon carcharias) than it is to the tiger shark.

3. NOT ALL OF THEM HAVE STRIPES.

Hear the word tiger and you think vertical stripes, but those stripes evolve over time. Baby tiger sharks—a.k.a. pups—are covered in roundish gray spots that fuse into stripes as the sharks mature. After a certain age, the stripes start to fade; they’re barely visible in full-grown adults.

4. TIGER SHARKS PREFER WARM WATER.

Tiger sharks are seen in tropical to warm temperate waters all over the world, and a study published in Global Change Biology in March 2018 revealed that the sharks have a "Goldilocks" zone. “Our study suggests that 22 degrees [Celsius, 71.6 degrees Fahrenheit] is not too cold for the animals and it’s not too hot for them,” lead author Nicholas Payne told the BBC. “It’s about right in terms of their optimal preference for temperature.” The scientists reached that conclusion after monitoring tagged sharks near Hawaii and comparing those findings to several decades’ worth of Australian fishing records.

5. THEY HAVE NOTCHED TEETH.

the teeth of the tiger shark with serrated edges

If you could pry open a tiger shark’s jaws, you’d see teeth with dramatic notch tips that point sideways. You'd also notice that the teeth on the left and right halves look like mirror images of each other. A tiger shark’s teeth have a dual function: They help the fish grasp onto struggling victims and can shear right through the thickest of hides, making them well-equipped to go after just about any prey that’s available.

6. THEY MIGHT BE THE ONLY SHARKS TO REGULARLY HUNT SEA TURTLES.

Every year, 12,000 nesting sea turtles visit Raine Island in the Great Barrier Reef, and tiger sharks—which hunt the turtles—aren't far behind.

To get its meal, the shark first has to get a good grip, but the turtle doesn't make it easy: When a shark gets too close for comfort, a turtle may respond by turning itself sideways so the top of the carapace is perpendicular to the shark’s jaws, making themselves too wide to bite into. Turtles in this position will also swim in tight circles around the predator, which protects the reptile’s vulnerable flanks.

According to a 2016 study, the sharks tend to avoid healthy turtles and instead conserve energy by going after sick or dying (or dead) turtles.

7. SEA GRASS SEEMS TO BENEFIT WHEN TIGER SHARKS ARE AROUND.

Though Australia's Shark Bay is home to a diverse array of organisms, it got its moniker for the 28 shark species that have been seen there—including tigers, which are especially common.

Sea grasses are the backbone of Shark Bay's ecosystem; they provide shelter for small animals and food for big herbivores. But the grasses were decimated after a 2011 heat wave. Since then, they've been making a gradual comeback, and scientists have noticed that they grow at a higher rate in places frequented by tiger sharks. This is probably because the sharks frighten off sea turtles and dugongs who like to eat the grass. “Just the fear of sharks can be enough, in many cases, to keep a marine ecosystem healthy and able to respond to stresses,” biologist Michael Heithaus said in a news release.

8. TIGER SHARKS GIVE BIRTH TO HUGE LITTERS.

Female tiger sharks are pregnant for 14 to 16 months and give birth to at least 10 pups, with around 30 being the average. But sometimes, they have many, many more than that: There have been reports of females birthing 80 pups at once. Usually, newborns weigh between six and 13 pounds.

9. IN THE ATLANTIC, THEY MIGRATE SOUTH FOR THE WINTER.

There's still a lot to learn about the travel habits of tiger sharks. A seven-year study found that Hawaiian females tend to travel more often—and more widely—around the island chain than males do. Another analysis, published in 2015 in Scientific Reports, focused on 24 adult tiger sharks in the Atlantic and found that, in the winter months, they stayed in the area around the Caribbean and West Indies. Then, for summer, they headed north and spent the warmest part of the year in the mid-Atlantic, venturing as far north as Connecticut (and far away from the coast). No one knows why the sharks make the trip, but it may have something to do with the young loggerhead turtles who dwell in those northern waters.

10. ONE TIGER SHARK BARFED UP A MURDER MYSTERY.

In April 1935, Coogee Aquarium in Sydney, Australia was looking for a big fish to occupy its newly-built pool. On a fishing trip off Coogee beach, Bert Hobson snared a 13-foot tiger shark for the aquarium.

The shark was a big hit at the aquarium, but it didn’t last very long. Seven days after its arrival, it got sick and vomited up a bird, a rat, some nasty-looking brown goo—and a human arm, which had a rope tied around its wrist and a forearm tattoo of two boxers.

An amateur boxer named James Smith had recently gone missing, and he had the exact same tattoo on one arm. Forensic analysis determined that the arm hadn’t been bitten off—it had been removed from the rest of Smith's body with a knife.

Detectives learned that Smith was last seen playing cards at the Hotel Cecil in Cronulla with his longtime associate Patrick Brady, a forger, who quickly became the number one suspect. The authorities were later informed by a boat-builder (and suspected criminal) named Reginald Holmes that Brady had murdered Smith in an argument. But before Holmes could testify in court, somebody shot him.

Brady's lawyers argued that a severed arm didn’t constitute proof of a murder. Smith, they argued, might still be alive somewhere—sans one limb, of course. Brady got off scot-free, which was more than could be said for the poor tiger shark—it died in captivity. A necropsy did not reveal any other human remains.

11. IT’S RARE, BUT TIGER SHARKS HAVE BEEN KNOWN TO SHARE FOOD WITH CROCODILES AND GREAT WHITES.

Bloated, rotting whale carcasses lure all kinds of animals out of the woodwork. Carnivores that normally don’t cross paths sometimes end up feasting on the dead mammals side-by-side. In 2015, two great whites and three tiger sharks were filmed tearing into the colossal body of a sperm whale near New South Wales, Australia. Years earlier, off the South African coastline, witnesses saw members of both species eating a Byrd’s whale carcass [PDF]. Australian drone footage from 2017 (above) shows a humpback carcass getting picked apart by both tiger sharks and saltwater crocodiles. Look at the video closely and you’ll see the croc and fish coming within a few yards of each other.

8 Things to Know About Tiger King, Netflix's Bizarre New True Crime Docuseries

Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Netflix

Last week Netflix quietly premiered Tiger King, a seven-part documentary series that continues the streaming service’s streak of compelling true crime tales. With each increasingly outlandish episode, viewers are submerged in the world of exotic petkeeping and roadside zoos, with Oklahoman polygamist Joe Exotic trading barbs—and eventually threats—with Florida tiger rescuer Carole Baskin. The tale rapidly expands to include a suspected sex cult, alleged mariticide, Exotic’s music career, and a somewhat unreliable hitman.

If you’ve finished the series, take a look at some additional facts surrounding this eclectic cast of characters. Just be aware that many spoilers follow.

1. Carole Baskin says Tiger King misrepresented a certain meat grinder.

When viewers are introduced to big cat breeder and G.W. Zoo operator Joe Exotic in Tiger King, they get an immediate glimpse of his rivalry with big cat advocate Carole Baskin. In addition to threats of bodily harm against Baskin, Exotic goes on to assert that in 1997, Baskin murdered her millionaire husband, Don Lewis, so that she could take over his vast estate and then fed his remains to her rescued tigers. In a blog post, Baskin denied that claim and stated that the meat grinder was a rumor started by the Lewis family. “Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home,” she wrote. “The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care. They just showed a bigger grinder.”

2. "Doc" Antle has denied his zoo operates as a kind of sex cult.

Tiger King makes significant overtures that Myrtle Beach Safari zoo operator Mahamayavi Bhagavan "Doc" Antle has used his stature in the world of big cats to recruit young women he subsequently develops personal relationships with. Antle dismissed this characterization to Vanity Fair. “There are a lot of cute girls here, because the conservation movement does draw in cute girls,” he said. “But those cute girls have nothing to do with this old fat guy running the place.” Antle went on to suggest his son was the beneficiary of any romantic entanglements. “He is a living Tarzan. He has women throwing themselves at him.”

3. There’s no federal law against owing big cats.

Central to Tiger King is the controversial premise that there’s no federal law prohibiting private citizens from owning potentially dangerous wildlife like lions or tigers. The Fish and Wildlife Service does require permits to sell endangered species across state lines, but traffickers often avoid this rule by marking transactions as “donations.” At the state level, roughly two-thirds prohibit owning a big cat. Others simply require a license, while a handful of states—including Oklahoma and Nevada, which figure prominently in the series—have no regulations at all.

4. Jeff Lowe was once sued by Prince.

Midway through the series, Joe Exotic appears to find a hope of salvation in the form of Jeff Lowe, an exotic animal enthusiast who agrees to have the G.W. Zoo put in his name to thwart the collection efforts of Carole Baskin, who had successfully sued Exotic for trademark infringement and won a $1 million judgment. (Exotic had used his web presence in an attempt to make people believe Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue was associated with his own efforts to antagonize Baskin and confuse her supporters.) Lowe himself was no stranger to controversy. In 2007, musician Prince sued Lowe because Lowe was allegedly selling unauthorized Prince merchandise. And in 2008, Lowe pled guilty to mail-order fraud charges for posing as an employee of a domestic abuse charity and reselling $1 million in merchandise.

5. Joe Exotic's business partner Rick Kirkham had a nervous breakdown.

Acting as a narrator of sorts, television producer Rick Kirkham appears in Tiger King to relate his experience dealing with Exotic, with whom he had a deal for a reality television series. According to Vanity Fair, Kirkham was initially reluctant to appear in the documentary but relented when the filmmakers agreed to come to Oslo, Norway, where he currently lives and works as a journalist. Kirkham said he had a nervous breakdown after his experience with Exotic, whom he described as “evil” and “like something out of The Omen.”

6. There’s more to the story of Joe Exotic’s (third) husband’s death than the series covered.

There is no shortage of astounding footage in Tiger King, but none provokes more of a shocked reaction among viewers than the moment when Joe Exotic’s third husband, 23-year-old Travis Maldonado, walks into the G.W. Zoo’s office, puts a gun to his head, and pulls the trigger. (The surveillance camera captures the reaction of an employee, as Maldonado is not within view.) It is unclear whether Maldonado was using the firearm recklessly, as he was known to do, or whether it was suicide. According to a 2017 article in the Oklahoman, Maldonado believed the gun had a bullet in the chamber but that it would not fire without a magazine, which he had ejected. It appears his death, while self-inflicted, was accidental.

7. Joe Exotic’s zoo is still open—but it might not be for much longer.

Following Exotic’s departure from the G.W. Zoo after butting heads with Jeff Lowe, the zoo he founded is still in operation. Lowe initially renamed it the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park before calling it the Oklahoma Zoo, with plans to relocate it to Thackerville, Oklahoma in the summer. It’s currently open for business. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chailkin expressed doubt about the zoo’s future. “All I can tell you is [Lowe] is basically operating on fumes,” Goode said. “No one is going now and there’s no source of income, and that’s been going on for a long time. It’s not something that has just happened because of what’s happening in the world today.”

8. Joe Exotic is still posting on Facebook and is asking for a presidential pardon.

In January 2020, Joe Exotic was sentenced to 22 years for two murder-for-hire plots against Carole Baskin as well as 17 wildlife charges. Exotic, who is currently being held in Grady County Jail in Oklahoma, regularly posts updates on Facebook expressing hope that Tiger King will activate supporters and help petition for a presidential pardon. “Thank you to the millions of people around the world who have watched Tiger King and see now the wrong that has been done to me,” he wrote on Monday, March 23. “It is you the people of the world who can change what has been done. Please keep this alive until someone reaches our President for a Pardon because its [sic] the right thing to do.”

Watch Fennec Foxes Exploring an Empty Chattanooga Zoo

wrangel, iStock via Getty Images
wrangel, iStock via Getty Images

Zoo animals around the country are taking advantage of their newly vacant environments. On Monday, March 23, the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee shared a video of its fennec foxes out of their enclosure and wandering halls that would normally be populated by people.

The Chattanooga Zoo closed to the public on Tuesday, March 17, in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Zookeepers are still coming into work, so not much has changed for the animal residents—besides the occasional opportunity to explore new parts of their home.

"While the visitors are away, the foxes will play!" the zoo wrote in a Facebook post. "We miss our interpretive centers being full of visitors this time of year, but while they had the chance, our keepers let our foxes explore the visitor viewing area of the Deserts of the World building for some fun environmental enrichment."

The zoo may have been inspired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Last week, the aquarium allowed its rockhopper penguins to take a field trip around the facilities, showing them around the Amazon exhibit and information center. As the video above shows, the fennec foxes were able to take in their new environment much faster on four legs.

In addition to sharing clips on its Facebook page, the Chattanooga Zoo is also sharing live-streams of its animals on its website. Here are even more animal webcams to check out while social distancing.

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