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The 411 on the great white shark

April 25, 2008 |  4:14 pm

A_great_white_in_baja_california

The 66-year-old triathlete who was killed by a shark Friday off the San Diego County coast was probably attacked by a great white, according to experts.

Great white sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, are named for their appearance -- a white underside on a body that can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh 5,000 pounds, with teeth as sharp as knives.

Major worldwide concentrations of these sharks are located off the California and New England coasts in the U.S. as well as South Africa and Australia and in the Mediterranean. Some observers estimate that great whites live 30 to 100 years, according to researchers with the Point Reyes Bird Observatory conservation science program in Northern California.

Studies have shown that great white attacks most often occur in the morning, within two hours after sunrise, because it's difficult to see a shark close to the ocean bottom at that time.

The predatory success rate following such attacks is 55% in the first two hours but falls to 40% in late morning; after that, the sharks stop hunting altogether, marine biologists R. Aidan Martin and Anne Martin wrote in Natural History magazine in 2006.

But Dennis Long, who teaches in the department of biology at St. Mary's College and has studied sharks for years, said the media sensationalized great white attacks and gave the animals a bad rap.

"Although the species is responsible for an average of two to three nonfatal attacks on swimmers, surfers and divers each year, its role as a menace is exaggerated; more people are killed in the U.S. each year by dogs than have been killed by white sharks in the last 100 years," Long writes on his website.

For more on these complex creatures, check out this recent Times report.

-- Francisco Vara-Orta

Photo: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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