Lemon sharks are robust creatures that survive in captivity much better than migratory species like the great white.
As a result, scientists and researchers have been able to study the behavior of the lemon shark in much greater detail than almost any other species.
These non-aggressive sharks live in warm, shallow waters, where their yellow skins allow them to blend in with the sandy seafloor. Using this as camouflage, lemon sharks prey on various species, from crustaceans to sting rays.
Lemon sharks are one of the most sociable shark species in our seas and spend much of their time in small groups, either hunting or resting on the seafloor. They are also homebodies that rarely stray far from where they were born.
The lemon shark’s site fidelity and friendliness make it popular amongst scuba divers, and numerous operations offer visitors the chance to dive with lemon sharks, both in the Bahamas and Florida’s east coast.
What do Lemon Sharks Look Like?
As their name suggests, lemon sharks are characterized by their yellow-brown coloration, which to some imaginative scientists, apparently resembles a lemon. I can’t see the similarity myself, but I’ll take their word for it.
The underbelly of the lemon shark is much paler, appearing off-white or light yellow. This dual coloration is common amongst sharks, giving them some element of camouflage when swimming in open water.
The lemon shark’s coloration also enables it to blend in with the sandy-bottomed shores of its preferred habitat.
Lemon sharks have few other distinguishing features besides their dorsal fins, which are distinctly triangular and similar in size. The first dorsal fin is situated on the lemon shark’s mid-back, and the second is smaller and located closer to the tail.
The closest living relative to the lemon shark is the sicklefin or sharp tooth lemon shark. The two species are very similar in appearance, although the sickle fin has more curved, sickle-shaped pectoral fins.
It’s almost impossible to confuse the two, however, as they live in different areas, with the sicklefin sticking to the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific and the lemon shark preferring the Atlantic Ocean.
Both types of lemon sharks reach similar sizes, averaging between 8 to 10 feet, although they can get up to 12 feet long.
As with most shark species, the female lemon shark tends to get larger than the male and is around four to six inches longer than the male when she reaches sexual maturity.
Lemon Shark Taxonomy
The lemon shark is a species of requiem shark and, as such, belongs to the Carcharhinidae family along with 60 other species, including bull sharks and tiger sharks.
The best way to distinguish lemon sharks from other members of the Carcharhinidae family is by their distinctive yellow coloration, although they all share similar characteristics.
There are 12 genera within the Carcharhinidae family, of which lemon sharks belong to the Negaprion genus. Only the lemon shark and its sickle fin cousin belong to this genus.
Lemon Shark Characteristics
Lemon sharks are highly sociable creatures and, as far as sharks go, extremely friendly. Lemon sharks are generally shy and docile when interacting with humans, although a handful of attacks have occurred over the years.
Lemon sharks inhabit shallow, coastal waters, bringing them into regular contact with humans. Their yellow skin also camouflages them against the sandy bottom, making them difficult to see.
Nevertheless, lemon sharks are among the friendliest shark species, and have “a zero percent fatality rate.” Most attacks on humans are the result of the shark being provoked or accidentally stepped on.
Lemon sharks will generally avoid conflict but will attack if they feel threatened. They are also friendly towards one another, with one study showing that they actively seek out specific “individuals that they prefer to follow and have social interactions with.”
Many shark species are largely solitary, but lemon sharks spend significant time hanging out in large groups. This behavior could benefit the sharks by providing protection against predators and increasing the chances of finding food.
Although lemon sharks are usually shy, individuals display distinct personalities, with some appearing to be bolder than others. Blondie the lemon shark lives off the coast of Florida and frequently interacts with local divers, apparently seeking affection rather than food.
Lemon Shark Life Cycle
Lemon sharks grow up in nurseries, utilizing mangrove forests and other near-shore areas for their protection.
At birth, lemon sharks measure between 1.5 and 2 feet long and are in danger of being cannibalized by larger adult lemon sharks, which is why they keep to their protected habitat.
Lemon sharks only leave their nursery grounds once they reach three feet in length, by which time they’re around two to three years old.
It takes a lot longer for them to reach sexual maturity, and they’ll spend the next decade or so hunting and socializing before they’re ready to find a mate.
Mating season for the lemon shark occurs in spring and summer, when the sharks gather in large groups, using the same mating grounds year after year.
Lemon sharks have complex mating rituals that involve coordinated dances and displays of dominance. The females are polyandrous, and “a single litter of lemon shark pups can have multiple partners,” which increases their genetic diversity.
The embryos have a gestation period of between 10 to 12 months, during which time an umbilical cord nourishes them.
After this lengthy period, the female gives birth to as many as 17 pups, which she promptly abandons. Lemon sharks are viviparous, and the young pups are born independent and ready to hunt.
The female lemon shark won’t return to the area again until she’s ready to give birth in another two years.
Lemon sharks live for an average of 27 years, although some are believed to have lived past 30. This is relatively young for a shark, as some species can live for hundreds of years.
Where do Lemon Sharks Live?
Lemon sharks live in shallow, subtropical waters in the Atlantic Ocean, Eastern Pacific, and the Caribbean. They are often found close to the shore, where the bottom is either sandy or rocky.
Lemon sharks frequent coral reefs, enclosed bays, and river mouths, which brings them into regular contact with humans. They can even tolerate brackish waters, “but unlike bull sharks, they don’t swim upriver into freshwater.”
Juvenile lemon sharks are usually found closer to shore than adults, which scientists believe is probably an act of “predator avoidance.”
Female lemon sharks use mangrove forests as cover when they give birth, and these go on to become safe nursery areas for their newborn pups.
Pups and juveniles thrive in these tropical waters, using the roots of the mangrove trees as cover while they hunt.
Adult lemon sharks are migratory, but not to the extent of some other shark species, some of which travel thousands of kilometers across the globe.
Lemon sharks will occasionally venture out into open water but always return to the same spots for mating and birthing.
Lemon sharks are usually found in shallow waters but will utilize deeper waters up to 300 feet.
Lemon Shark Behavior
Lemon sharks are predominantly nocturnal hunters that gather together in groups of around 20 individuals to increase their chances of finding prey.
Most sharks are solitary animals, but not lemon sharks. They congregate to hunt, rest, and simply because they appear to enjoy one another’s company.
While this sociability gives the lemon shark advantages in the form of “communication, courtship, and hunting,” it also comes with a few negatives. Groups of sharks are at greater risk of disease and parasite infestation and may have to compete for food.
Each year, lemon sharks return to the same mating grounds. Once there, the females release pheromones into the water to attract the males. As soon as enough sharks have gathered, the mating process begins.
According to one study, this usually involves very specific “courtship behavior, characterized by a male showing a close nose to tail behavior while following a female.”
While that sounds faintly romantic, what happens next is anything but. To ensure he fertilizes the female lemon shark effectively, the male shark will bite onto the female to hold himself in place, leaving visible injuries and scars.
Even as juveniles, lemon sharks seem to enjoy the company of others, seeking out individuals that are the same size as themselves, presumably to avoid the risk of cannibalization.
What do Lemon Sharks Eat?
The diet and hunting strategies of lemon sharks change as it ages. The lemon shark largely depends on its nursery habitat for food as a pup or juvenile. Studies suggest it lives on a diet of “small demersal fish and juvenile pink squid,” alongside the occasional crab or prawn.
As the lemon shark matures, its hunting strategies improve, enabling it to capture faster-moving prey, like sardines.
Lemon sharks aren’t particularly fussy about their diets, even though they do show a “high degree of preferences in prey items under favorable environmental conditions.”
Nevertheless, an adult lemon shark will take advantage of an easy meal whenever available, even if that means cannibalizing one of its own kind.
A study into lemon sharks’ hunting strategies off Brazil coast found that juveniles under 6.5 feet long tended to hunt in “crevices and holes over rocky and reef bottoms,” while adult lemon sharks strike at schooling fish in the surf zone.
Despite its willingness to target schooling fish, the lemon shark isn’t a particularly speedy creature, rarely accelerating beyond 3.2 kph. As a result, it prefers slow-moving prey that it hunts using the camouflage of the seafloor.
What Hunts Lemon Sharks?
The only predator the lemon shark has to fear is other lemon sharks. Adult lemon sharks know exactly where the juveniles hang out and will occasionally pop in for a quick, nutritious meal.
Mature lemon sharks have no known predators, largely due to their size, although nothing much seems to stop the ocean’s apex predator – the orca.
Fortunately for the lemon shark, orcas prefer cooler waters and rarely venture into the lemon shark’s habitat.
The biggest threat to the lemon shark is the human. Not only do we continue to hunt the lemon shark for its valuable meat, skin, and fins, but we’re also endangering it by destabilizing its natural habitat.
The mangrove forests that provide a haven for juveniles and birthing females are being “lost due to coastal development, construction of tourism facilities, and natural disasters.”
Not only is this destroying an essential marine ecosystem, but it’s also causing a decline in the number of lemon sharks surviving their first year of life.
Although the lemon shark is one of the most common species in the Atlantic Ocean, its numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate. The lemon shark is currently listed as “‘near threatened with extinction” on the IUCN Red List.
The lemon shark’s ability to survive in captivity has given researchers and scientists the chance to understand their lives and behavior more than almost any other shark species.
Studies have revealed that lemon sharks engage in complex social behaviors, display individual personalities, and learn through observation and information transfer.
Lemon sharks are one of the most common shark species found off the coast of Florida, but despite coming into regular contact with humans, pose very little threat. They are generally shy creatures that avoid conflict, even with one another.
Nevertheless, a few unfortunate victims have discovered that lemon sharks are big enough to endanger a human. Earlier this year, a woman fought off a lemon shark that bit her foot by punching it repeatedly in the snout.
Heather West escaped with her foot still intact, although she needed 20 stitches to repair the damage and “is now experiencing issues with her ligaments and tendons.”
Even though lemon sharks are friendly, they are big enough to cause serious injury, so must be treated with caution and respect.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.