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Shark Spotlight: The Nurse Shark

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Although the largest sharks you’ll probably see at The Greater Cleveland Aquarium are sand tigers, another species to call us home can grow even larger. At a maximum length of 14 feet, nurse sharks are one of the most instantly recognizable marine animals. Even if you are not particularly fond of sharks in general, it’s hard not to like this one.

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One of the most common sharks around the world, nurse sharks are often spotted along the coasts of the Americas, the Eastern coast of Africa and a variety of tropical and subtropical reefs. While some predators enjoy shallow water, this one likes very shallow waters. Often lying at a depth of less than three feet, they can cruise below 50 feet if needed. Menu items usually include crustaceans, mollusks, sea snakes, fish and certain types of stingrays.

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As a nocturnal hunter, nurse sharks are not very active during the day. Surprisingly large schools of individuals, up to 40 in some cases, will spend the majority of the day simply sitting on the ocean floor. Once the sun disappears, life becomes far more solitary as the sharks hunt individually. After finding a meal, they will return to the group, seeming to prefer one central location. You may not have thought of such predators as omnivores, but this species is known to graze on various kinds of coral and algae.

Unlike the typical shark image, nurse sharks do not have a particularly ferocious set of daggers. Instead, their jaws are lined with thousands of small yet serrated teeth. Though the shark may sound harmless, the jaws are still incredibly strong. Able to crush shellfish, if you happen to come across a nurse shark while diving it’s best to leave it alone. They certainly do not mind humans nearby but prefer not to be handled. If stepped on or grabbed, they are known to bite defensively. It likely won’t kill you but serious injuries can still occur.

Capable of living for up to 29 years, these sharks are currently in no danger of being threatened. Worldwide the species has incredibly strong numbers and man has not endangered the shark. There is some concern that as coastal development continues, the population size could be vulnerable. However, at least for the moment, the nurse shark is doing very well.

While it is legal to purchase young nurse sharks for home aquariums, it is neither practical nor particularly ethical. Since the shark can easily surpass 10 feet in length and requires precise conditions, it simply is outside of what even the largest personal aquariums are designed for. Additionally, once these sharks are raised in such an unfit environment, they likely won’t survive in the wild.

Thus, it’s probably best to leave the work and expense to the professionals at major aquariums. Be sure to stop by and see ones that call the Greater Cleveland Aquarium home!