Nurse shark

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Scientific name

Ginglymostoma cirratum

Family

Ginglymostomatidae

Size

Up to 3.1 meters (10 feet)

Lifespan

35 years

Did you know?

Nurse sharks are among the most common shark species found in the tropical and temperate seas of the Atlantic Ocean; however, we know very little about their ecology or population status. They have relatively small home ranges and tend to stick close to home, but some individuals undergo seasonal migrations of more than 300 km one way.

About Nurse sharks

Nurse sharks are benthic, or bottom-dwelling, sharks that are common in tropical and temperate seas in the Atlantic Ocean. Some divers (and scientists) consider them lazy as they are often encountered sleeping under reef overhangs during the day, but nurse sharks are in fact largely nocturnal and are quite active after dark. While many sharks need to swim in order to breathe, nurse sharks can pump water over their gills using ‘buccal pumping’, or opening and closing their mouths. Nurse sharks largely are harmless to humans, as they are obligate suction feeders, using their small teeth mostly for gripping; however, unwary snorkelers or divers have had hands and fingers injured by nurse sharks looking for a handout at feeding sites. 

Although nurse sharks have been fully protected from fishing in Belize since 2012, their long generation times make them slow to recover from overfishing – studies have estimated that nurse sharks do not reach sexual maturity until 25 years of age! Our research has found that there are roughly 3,800 to 14,400 nurse sharks throughout Belize. The highest densities of nurse sharks were found at the atolls furthest away from the mainland, where fishing pressures are lower. 

Diet

Nurse sharks mostly eat small fish, crustaceans, and other invertebrates such as conchs.

Distribution

The nurse shark is found in the Atlantic Ocean throughout tropical and temperate seas. It inhabits rocky and coral reefs, seagrasses, mangrove channels, and sand flats and continental shelves from inshore to 130 meters.

Fun facts

  • Nurse sharks generate suction forces that are among the highest recorded for any aquatic vertebrate - a nurse shark can literally suck a conch out of its shell.

Nurse shark photo gallery

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