THE ROLE OF SHARKS IN THE ECOSYSTEM
By Mike Bennett
coo o Biomeica Sciences, Te University o Queensan,t. Lucia, Queensan, 4072 Austraia
Fses o te cass Conrctyes are commony reerreo as te ‘cartagnous ses’ as tey ave seetons maeof cartilage, unlike most other shes whose skeletons areade of bone. However, parts of the skeleton and the jawsn particular, may be calcied to produce stiffer and stronger structures. Te cass comprses te Hoocepa cmeras,gost sars, eepant s, sver sars an rat s an teEamoranc ‘true’ sars an rays, wt te true sars oustralia represented by 27 families in eight orders (see Lastand Stevens, 1994; Compagno, L.J.V., 2001). Worldwide, thereare aout 1200 nown speces o sars, rays an cmeras,ang up aout 5 percent o a s speces. Austraa sortunate n avng a partcuary rc conrctyan auna,ith about 300 species currently described.Of the 370 extant shark species worldwide, almost half (170speces can e oun n Austraan waters. Neary a ve ne marne envronment wt ew ae to toerate te racsower reaches of rivers. The bull shark (
s however commonly found in estuaries and rivers in tropicaland warm temperate regions, and
spp. may penetrateany ometres up certan rvers o te nortern part oustraa.Sharks occur in a broad range of marine habitats from shallowcoastal waters (< about 30 metres depth), across the continentalshelf (30–200 metres) and slope (200–2000 metres), througho te eep ocean > 2000 metres. Tey occupy waters rome warm equatora zone o Austraa’s nortern coast to tecool temperate conditions in the Southern Ocean. Within thisarge geographical area sharks can be found living in a broadariety of environments. In the open ocean some are pelagic,vng ter woe ves n upper an me waters, weoters are more entc, vng on or near te ocean oor, asare many speces assocate wt te contnenta sope. Coastaand shelf waters offer a wide range of habitats in terms of depth, water conditions (e.g. temperature, turbidity, salinity,dissolved oxygen) and substrate (e.g. coral reefs, rocky reefs,san, mu. Some sar speces ave very narrow, preerreatats, wereas oters are ae to utse a range o erentabitat types.Speces wtn eac o te 27 Austraan sar ames avefairly similar body forms and, as morphology effectivelydetermines a shark’s ability to exploit the environment, sharkswithin each family tend to play similar roles in the ecosystem.For exampe, mao sars
spp. wt ter streamne,torpeo-sape oes, are generay ae to swm reatveyast an wt energetc economy. Tey can move argedistances and can prey on a wide variety of marine fauna (in particular teleost shes) with their large, powerful jaws andteeth. Sharks with dorso-ventrally attened body forms, suchas woegongs
spp. are aapte or a emersa e-stye usng cryptc patterning and colouration of the body surface as camouage intheir sit-and-wait predator role (gure 1).
To unerstan te roe o sars n te ecosystem t sunamentay mportant to now wat tey ee on. Sarsare roay perceve as apex preators wtn marnecommunities and, overall, with a mean trophic level of 4.0,occupy the same trophic level as marine mammals. [Trophiclevels are calculated from knowledge of what and howmuc a sar eats. Te oowng are exampes o pant ananma tropc eves TL: Pants occupy a TL o 1.0; mostinvertebrates, TL ≈ 2.5; teleost shes and cephalopod molluscs,TL ≈ 3.2; and marine mammals, TL ≈ 4.0)]. The great whiteshark (
) has the highest trophic levelTL = 4.5 ue prmary to marne mammas mang upaout 20 percent o ts et gure 2. At te oter extreme,te zera sar
tat ees excusveyon molluscs has a trophic level of 3.1. So, while all sharks arehigher-level predators they are not all true apex predators.
Figure 1. The spotted wobbegong (
) may growup to three metres long. This camouaged shark commonly ambushes passing prey, that includes teleost shes, crabs, rock lobsters andoctopuses (© Ken Hoppen, email@example.com).