From reef sharks in constant motion to small deep-ocean sharks resting vertically on a rock wall, these awe-inspiring predators are found across our oceans—and throughout Shedd Aquarium. Elegantly slicing through the water, each is different from the next, but all display an eye-catching mixture of beauty and grace. Look closer at the sharks that call Shedd home.
Walking Wild Reef
Located on Shedd’s lower level, Wild Reef evokes the colors and diversity of a Philippines reef. Its centerpiece is a 400,000-gallon habitat that’s home to blacktip reef sharks, sandbars, Japanese and spotted wobbegongs, and zebra sharks.
Blacktip reef sharks and sandbar sharks
The “sharkiest” species in Wild Reef, sandbars and blacktip reef sharks continually cruise through their habitat. As obligate ram ventilators, these sharks must keep moving to push the oxygen in the water over their gills so that they can breathe. These two species are easy to distinguish in Wild Reef, as the blacktips are noticeably smaller and have a black mark on the tip of the dorsal fin (hence the name). The dusky brown sandbars have a tall dorsal fin that keeps them steady as they glide through the water.
Japanese and spotted wobbegongs
These so-called carpet sharks, named for their habit of lying on the floor of shallow reefs waiting for prey, have a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth; when they grab a passing fish, they don’t let go. The wobbegongs are not aggressive toward humans, however. Indeed, Shedd’s divers enter the water to feed them. While the Japanese and spotted wobbegongs both have beautifully ornate patterns, the two species can be told apart by their size. The Japanese wobbegong is typically 3 feet long while the spotted wobbegong can grow up to 10 feet (but usually stays around 6 feet long).
When you see the zebra sharks swimming near the upper half of their habitat, it may be hard to identify them at first, as their name is misleading. Adult zebra sharks have spots, not stripes, covering their bodies. Then why call them zebras? When the pups are born, they have distinct black-and-white stripes, which help them look more like a venomous sea snake than a tasty shark pup.
At Wild Reef, the zebra sharks are fed a diet of squid, clams and a variety of fish. They are also given a multivitamin that’s often wrapped with a “fish burrito”—a fish stuffed inside a squid—that helps keep them healthy.
Wild Reef’s sharks aren’t only found in the immense central habitat. Several rooms over, you can also discover bamboo sharks in the lagoon and mangrove habitats. Distantly related to wobbegongs, these 3-foot-long, white-spotted sharks are also carpet sharks, hunting at night for small fishes and crustaceans. If you look at the wall near their habitat, you can usually see a bamboo shark egg, with the young shark developing within a translucent, fibrous egg case. While you’re at the lagoon, look for coral catsharks too.
Cruising Caribbean Reef
The first habitat most guests see when they visit Shedd is the Caribbean Reef, located at the heart of the historic galleries. This colorful habitat is home to Nickel the green sea turtle, cownose stingrays, a variety of colorful schooling fishes—and a few bonnethead sharks.
The bonnetheadsin Caribbean Reef are often mistaken for babies, but they are adults. These sharks are fully grown at 3 or 4 feet long, making them one of the smallest hammerhead shark species. By comparison, greater hammerheads can be 20 feet long.
Like other hammerheads, bonnetheads have eyes and nostrils on either side of their wide heads, giving them a panoramic field of sight and smell. When hunting, they sweep their heads from side to side, helping them to detect electrical fields through sensory organs located along the top of their crescent-shaped heads. This adaptation helps the sharks find prey, even if it’s sitting motionless on the seafloor. In the wild, bonnethead sharks burrow into the mud and sand to find crustaceans, shrimp, mussels, snails, octopuses and small fishes.
Exploring the Oceans gallery
At 15 to 18 inches long, these are the smallest sharks at Shedd. Look for their habitat on the right-hand side of the gallery, where they can normally be seen resting vertically on a rock wall. They like to stay on the ocean floor—at 120 to 750 feet within their northern range in the western Atlantic, all the way down to 1,500 feet in the Gulf of Mexico. They eat small bony fishes, squids, marine worms and crustaceans.
As its name suggests, this species has a short, blunt head and hornlike ridges. These sharks are not fast swimmers and typically stay near the seafloor. At 38 inches long, horn sharks are one of the smallest shark species. Powerful back teeth, like our molars, help them grind up prey including mollusks, crustaceans and urchins.
Leopard sharks weave through the waters of the Kelp Foresthabitat. These smaller sharks are active swimmers and typically travel in schools. They live in coastal areas, often in rocky or sandy bays, as well as in kelp forests in the eastern Pacific Ocean. Situated at the middle of the shark food chain, leopard sharks eat fishes, crustaceans and the eggs and young of other sharks. They are preyed upon by bigger sharks, like the great white.
The Kelp Forestis also home to swell sharks. This species gets its name from a hydraulic defense mechanism: A swell shark will tuck itself into a tight place and take in a large amount of water, puffing up to prevent predators from dislodging it. These smaller sharks typically lie low on the seafloor, where their sandy coloring helps them blend in. Their diet consists of fishes, crustaceans and mollusks.
Powerful predators and often misunderstood, sharks are important to the health of the ecosystems they live in. They are also vulnerable to human impacts, including habitat loss and overfishing.
Shedd scientists conduct researchin the Caribbean to help us protect sharks and their ecosystems. Our experts travel to Bimini and the Bahamas to observe Caribbean reef sharks, hammerheads, lemon sharks and other species. By surveying sharks, we can get a clearer image of their health and behavior—and a better understanding of how to protect them.
You can help too—act today to Keep Sharks Swimming!
—Emily Roney, marketing intern
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