Shark Week Q & A with Resident Expert Jason O'Bryhim

Looks friendly, right? (photo by Jeff Kurbina).

UPDATED 12:30 p.m. 

Whether watching in their dorms or sitting comfortably on their couch at home, college students all over the country are tuning into the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, which kicked off on Sunday and continues through Saturday, August 7.

In celebration of this popular television event, C2M contacted a George Mason University PhD candidate, professor and all-around resident shark expert, Jason O’Bryhim, for a Q & A session on these popular – yet often misunderstood – creatures of the deep. 

Happy Shark Week, and enjoy. 


C2M: Mason students are celebrating Shark Week in a variety of ways—some together in parties, some with their families and some just enjoy it alone. How are you celebrating Shark Week? Do you take part in any Shark Week specific parties?

O’Bryhim: I do not take part in any shark week parties. I usually select which parts of it I will watch and usually watch it at home. The reason I don’t watch each segment is because some of the programs I feel can portray sharks in the wrong manner. An entire program devoted to the ten deadliest sharks or entirely on shark attacks gives the wrong impression of sharks. Shark attacks are very uncommon; you are more likely to be struck by lightning, so I think those specific programs could be creating some of the negative preconceived notions about sharks.

C2M: Have you heard of any other Mason professors throwing a Shark Week party?

O’Bryhim: I have not heard of any other mason professors having shark week parties. 

C2M: Have you tried any Shark Week themed cocktails? Discovery channel has been promoting drinks with a "bite" on their website, but a Bloody Mary also seems appropriate for the occasion.

O’Bryhim: I cannot say that I have tried any of these cocktails. I actually didn’t even know that this existed.

C2M: The George Mason statue is seven feet tall. Do you think a shark could eat it?

O’Bryhim:  If you mean in a single bite, then no, most sharks could not reach the size to eat something that large. The only two sharks I believe that could accomplish this feat would be the whale and basking shark, which reach approximately 40 feet and 30 feet respectively. However, both of these sharks feed exclusively on plankton, plankton being very small floating marine organisms. 

Now, if you meant eat it in several pieces—then yes, it would be possible. Great Whites have been found feeding on dead whale carcasses. In all likelihood these sharks did not kill the whale, but [instead] are merely profiting off an already dead animal for its fat rich blubber layer. Great Whites in some areas also have been found to feed on elephant seals and these reach up to 10 feet in females and 16 feet in males weighing on average between 2,000 lbs and 6,000 lbs. Great whites – like most sharks – tend to go for the weak or young, so it is most likely they aren’t attacking animals on the larger side of the scale and are actually going after individuals that are smaller than [the George Mason statue].

C2M: What about a college student? Do you think a shark could eat an average-sized college freshman?

O’Bryhim:  There are several sharks that have the size to eat the average sized human, but again, not in one bite. You would need a great white shark that was at the end of the known size-range for these animals, at about 20 feet, and perfect positioning of the person for it to be remotely possible. It is highly unlikely, however, that you would be eaten by a shark.

First off, of the nearly 500 shark species, only about 41 species have been recorded to ever attack a human. Seventy-five percent of those were actually provoked attacks, and 12 of those four species only have one recorded attack. More people actually drown each year at U.S. beaches than are attacked by sharks. 

Now, just because a shark attacks doesn’t mean it is going to fatally injure you, or eat you. Less than one percent of shark attacks are fatal. Most attacks are merely mistaken identity. The sharks mistake people for food items, or people are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The reason that most attacks aren’t fatal is because after the initial attack the shark realizes you are not a normal prey item and will move on. It turns out that sharks can be very particular about their prey, and if you are not the right size or will not provide enough energy, they will not attack you or will stop attacking. Only in rare cases will a shark continue to attack and actually try to eat the whole victim. They are usually just investigating, and it just happens that their tiny taste does a lot of damage.

C2M: People say that college students eat a lot, what about sharks?

O’Bryhim:  It depends on many different factors. It varies between types of shark, whether or not they are at their feeding grounds, if they are migrating or possibly mating. When sharks are migrating, like most animals they probably eat very little. They rely on their large fat stores in their livers for energy. When they are at their feeding grounds they must replenish this lost energy so they can eat quite a lot.

C2M: It's a known fact that college students sleep a lot. What about sharks?

O’Bryhim: It is actually not known whether or not sharks sleep. Some sharks are nocturnal, so they are not sleeping in the manner that we perceive it. Some species are known to rest on the ocean bottom but when you come close their eyes will still follow you. Some sharks have to keep moving to be able to breathe in what is known as ram ventilation, so it would seem that they would have to constantly be awake to keep moving. However, it was found that swimming movements in the shark are controlled by an area in the spinal cord [and] not the brain. So they could technically sleep and swim. 

We really just don’t know if they sleep in the same manner that we consider sleeping. Some researchers believe that sharks may sleep in a similar way to dolphins, by shutting down parts of the brain periodically for a couple of minutes. It’s really just not clear at this time.

C2M: Can you shed light on this age-old question: Is a shark a mammal or a fish?

O’Bryhim: I didn’t realize that this was ever in question. Sharks have gills and collect oxygen from the water and do not breathe atmospheric air like mammals. Sharks are fish but they are different from other more common types of fish. Sharks belong to the class Chondrichthyes or cartilaginous fish. When most people think of fish they think of Teleosts or bony fish. Sharks have a cartilaginous skeleton unlike other fish and this is one reason you do not see shark skeletons in museums, because they do not fossilize. We only see their teeth which have a tougher coating and recreated jaws. There is also several other characteristics that are different between modern bony fish and sharks.

C2M: It appears that you are Mason's resident shark expert. What makes you so interested in sharks?

I have been interested in sharks since I can remember. I don’t know exactly what it is that got me hooked on them at the beginning but it has never stopped. They can be so different and specialized you can always discover new surprises.

C2M: ...What's the coolest thing about a shark?

O’Bryhim: It’s hard to pick one thing but the fact that they have been around for over 400 million years with only minor changes to their basic structure is amazing.

C2M: In the Center for Global Education's profile for the Costa Rica trip in the winter of 2011, it says that you work with shark conservation and have researched how the public's view of sharks affects their conservation. What conclusions have you drawn?

O’Bryhim: I have found that for the most part peoples’ knowledge about sharks is very limited. Many people also have negative preconceived notions about sharks and this can affect their attitudes and even behaviors toward sharks. As people gain more factual information about sharks they tend to become much more supportive of shark conservation and are even willing to support legislation to help protect sharks. 

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