A-z - Animals

10 Unbelievable Nurse Shark Facts

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Nurse sharks are large, slow bottom dwellers in the shark world. They belong to a family of sharks known as Ginglymostomatidae, which in Greek means hinged mouth. There are actually several species of sharks in the nurse shark family, including the Atlantic nurse shark, the tawny nurse shark, and the short-tailed nurse shark.

Sharks can stir up fear in many people. But here, we'll find out why the nurse shark is one of the most benign and funniest sharks in the world. Read on to discover ten incredible nurse shark facts!

1. Nurse sharks don’t usually attack humans

Undersea Nurse Shark
Like other bottom feeders, nurse sharks persist in hunting prey on coral reefs or underwater sand.

© Duncan Wright/Creative Commons

Nurse sharks are large, with the largest reaching 14 feet in length. However, unlike other sharks such as great whites and tiger sharks, they do not prey on large fish or mammals. Because of this, there's no such thing as a "wrong person" when it comes to nurse shark bites. In fact, unprovoked bites by these placid bottom feeders are very rare. Yet too many people mistake the calmness of the nurse shark for an invitation to pet, ride, or even trample. Like all other wild animals, nurse sharks will bite when threatened, but no fatalities have been recorded.

2. Their names have a cool origin

One incredible nurse shark fact has to do with how they get their name. Incredibly, this has nothing to do with hospital staff or bedside attitude. There are two popular hypotheses that explain the origin of the name "nurse shark." The first is that they get their name from the sucking motion they make with their jaws while feeding, which is similar to baby nursing. The second is that the name actually comes from the Old English word "hurse" or the Middle English word "nusse" for an undersea shark, meaning cat shark.

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3. Nurse sharks are friendly

nurse shark swimming with fish
Nurse sharks tolerate human observation.

© Ian White/Creative Commons

Of all the sharks, the nurse shark is one of the most tolerant of humans in the water. They feed strictly on smaller creatures, so humans are off the menu. Also, because nurse sharks spend all day sleeping on the bottom of the ocean, they are often observed sleeping by divers and snorkelers. They only bite when stepped on or provoked.

4. They like to stay in one place

Most sharks spend their entire lives in constant motion. They have to swim to breathe, so inactivity means death for them. Not so with nurse sharks. Nurse sharks are slow swimmers and spend hours each day sleeping on the bottom of the ocean. To facilitate this inactivity, they have a special pump called a buccal pump, which actually pulls water through their gills. This essentially simulates movement and makes the nurse shark stand still.

5. Nurse sharks sleep all day

Collection of nurse sharks
Mammal sharks only hunt when the sun goes down.

© Kim/Creative Commons

Another fascinating nurse shark fact is that nurse sharks are completely nocturnal. This means that nurse sharks will come out once the sea gets dark. They swim slowly along coral reefs and sandy bottoms at night in search of food. During the day, they sleep, sometimes in groups.

6. They are endangered

Like nearly all sharks currently swimming in our oceans, nurse sharks are at risk of extinction. They are currently listed as a Vulnerable species, and their main threats are bycatch (inadvertent netting or fishing), mortality from bycatch, overfishing and pollution. As a group, sharks are seriously threatened and need our help more than ever.

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7. Nurse sharks have lots of teeth

Nurse Shark Teeth - Nurse Shark
Their mouths are relatively small, with tentacles on each side.

© tali de pablos/Shutterstock.com

You're unlikely to come into contact with a nurse shark's teeth unless you pull their tail or otherwise irritate them. However, the mouth of a nurse shark is the last place you want your hands or feet to be. Nurse sharks have row after row of sharp, serrated teeth. As we age, old teeth fall out and new teeth take their place.

8. They live in coastal waters

Like hammerheads, nurse sharks live only in warm coastal waters; you won't find them in the open ocean. Specifically, they live in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They are found along the west coast of North Africa, the east and west coasts of northern South America, and coastal waters throughout much of Central America. Additionally, they are found along the east coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico.

9. Nurse sharks are bottom feeders

nurse shark
These sharks have few natural predators as adults.

©Gary Rinaldi/Creative Commons

Like stingrays, nurse sharks kill by sucking food into their mouths. They eat just about everything they find on the ocean floor, including lobsters, crabs, shrimp, and slow-swimming fish. They also eat some corals and molluscs. To feed, nurse sharks swim along the ocean floor or coral reefs, using their powerful mouths to suck prey into their teeth. In fact, they are so good at vacuuming that they can even tear molluscs out of their shells. In the case of human bites, unfortunately, it is often necessary to kill the shark to remove it from the bitten limb.

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10. They start small but grow bigger

Another interesting nurse shark fact is that nurse sharks start off as foot-long pups. Females are oviparous, which means they actually keep their eggs inside the womb. There, the eggs hatch and the females give birth to live young. Young nurse sharks double in size at one year of age and grow about six inches each year thereafter. They aren't ready to have pups of their own until they are at least seven feet long. This means that nurse sharks don't give birth to young nurse sharks until they are around 18-20 years old. They can grow up to 14 feet long as adults.

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What Nurse Sharks Eat - Nurse Shark Face

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about the author

Brandi Allred


Brandi is a professional writer by day and a fiction writer by night. Her nonfiction work focuses on animals, nature, and conservation. She has degrees in English and Anthropology and writes horror, science fiction and fantasy stories in her spare time.

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