The tiger shark may not have the fearsome reputation of its more famous relation, the great white, but make no mistake, this is a serious predator.
If you happen to be a turtle, a large tasty fish, a dolphin, or even a smaller shark in tropical or temperate waters, the tiger will probably be out to get you.
We’ll investigate the tiger shark together and tell you everything we can about this fascinating ocean hunter. We’ll discover what it looks like, where it lives, and what it likes to eat, amongst many other fascinating tiger shark facts.
We’ll see that while this shark is undoubtedly one of the more potentially dangerous sharks in the sea, incidents involving humans are, thankfully, extremely rare.
We’re also going to find out that this impressive and even beautiful creature is sadly highly endangered in many areas due to destructive human activities, including shark finning.
What Do Tiger Sharks Look Like?
It’s probably not surprising to hear that the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier) gets its name from the dark, tiger-like stripes you can see on its body, and indeed, these are a stand-out feature to look for.
However, they’re not a totally reliable identification method as the stripes fade as the shark gets older. Fully grown adults may have barely visible lines, or they might not be there at all.
Apart from the stripes, tiger shark skin is blue or light green on the top and sides, and they have white or light-yellow bellies.
This color combination, known as countershading, camouflages the shark appropriately for the angle that prey or predators are looking at it from.
When viewed from above or the side, the shark is hidden against the backdrop of the darker water. However, if looked at from below, the lighter skin color camouflages the tiger against the brighter sunlit background.
Tiger sharks have relatively longer bodies than other requiem sharks of the family Carcharhinidae.
They also have flatter noses than many of their relatives, and rather than being pointed, the tiger shark has noticeable edges on either side of its broad head, making it more wedge-shaped.
Tiger sharks also have significantly longer pectoral fins than related species, which helps lift their bulky bodies as they cruise in the water.
Their upper tails are longer than the lower section to provide bursts of speed, although this becomes more symmetrical in adults as they tend to swim the ocean with little fear of predators.
How Big Is a Tiger Shark?
Adult tiger sharks generally range between 3.25 and 4.25 m (10 ft 8 in – 13 ft 11 in) in length and weigh a significant 175 to 635 kg (386 to 1,400 lb).
Female tiger sharks are larger than the males, and particularly sizable individuals have been caught, reaching over 5 m (16 ft 5 in) long. In contrast, the largest males are usually about one meter (3 ft 3 in) smaller.
Even a newly born tiger shark pup is pretty big and usually measures about 76 cm (30 in) long.
Is a Tiger Shark Bigger than a Great White?
Tiger sharks do get pretty big. However, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is usually larger, with its females generally measuring around 4.5 – 4.9 m (15 – 16 ft).
On the list of the biggest sharks in the ocean today, tiger sharks usually come in fourth behind the great white, the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), and the giant whale shark (Rhincodon typus) in number one spot.
There are other large sharks of similar size to the tiger, including the megamouth (Megachasma pelagios) and Greenland sharks (Somniosus microcephalus). However, these aren’t nearly as well studied by scientists.
Tiger Shark Taxonomy
The genus contained over 12 species since it first appeared in the Paleocene epoch 66 to 56 million years ago, but apart from the tiger, all that remains are fossilized shark teeth.
The scientists Peron and Lesueur were the first to describe the tiger shark in 1822 and named it Squalus cuvier. It was renamed Galeocerdo tigrinus in 1837 by Müller and Henle before taxonomists settled on the name Galeocerdo cuvier.
Tiger Shark Characteristics
Tiger Shark Stripes
We’ve already mentioned the tiger shark’s most prominent characteristic, its stripes.
It’s thought that the stripes are used as camouflage to protect young individuals from predators.
Juvenile tiger sharks stay in shallow waters near the coast as they grow, and the stripes may let them hide amongst shadows on the seabed caused by waves.
As the shark ages and begins to cruise the open sea as an apex predator, the camouflage stripes are no longer needed, so they fade away.
Tiger shark teeth are known for having an unusual shape compared to other species. Each tooth has a sharp sideways-pointing tip combined with jagged serrations along the edges.
These teeth are as broad at the root base as the teeth of the great white shark. However, they are much shorter. They are also practically identical in both jaws rather than having fewer cutting teeth on the lower level, as seen in other predators.
The unique shape has evolved as the perfect tool for slicing through turtle shells and hard bones and makes the tiger shark a formidable hunter.
The tiger shark is the only species of requiem shark with suction holes known as spiracles.
These holes are located behind the shark’s eyes, and it’s thought they’re used to pump water to oxygenate blood vessels supplying the brain and eyes directly.
Tiger sharks are considered to have relatively excellent low-light vision. They have a special reflective layer of tissue behind their retinas called the tapetum lucidum that increases the amount of light that reaches the eye’s light-detecting cells.
In common with many other sharks, the tiger has a white-colored nictating membrane that can be drawn across the eye for protection. This is often used when the shark is feeding.
Tiger sharks don’t just have good eyesight. They also have sensing organs that can detect potential threats and food beyond their visual range or in complete darkness.
The shark’s nose has small pits containing the electroreceptors known as the ampullae of Lorenzini. These can detect the weak electrical impulses given off by other animals, and the shark uses them as a direction finder to hunt prey.
Additionally, the tiger shark has a lateral line organ that runs down its sides and detects vibrations in the water that can give away the location of potential food.
Tiger Shark Life Cycle
How Long Does a Tiger Shark Live?
Scientists estimate the lifespan of a tiger shark to be at least 12 years.
As we will see later, adult tiger sharks don’t have many natural predators, so most sharks die from natural causes, disease, or human actions.
Tiger Shark Life Cycle
Tiger sharks reach sexual maturity between four and six years of age, and scientists don’t know much about how or where they reproduce or give birth.
It’s thought that a female tiger shark can mate once every three years, so on average may produce only two litters in her lifetime.
Male tiger sharks are believed to hold the female with their teeth during copulation and use their claspers to deliver their sperm for internal fertilization to take place. Female sharks have been observed showing significant injuries thought to have been caused during reproduction.
Tiger sharks are ovoviviparous, which means that the female carries the fertilized eggs inside her. The babies will grow inside the egg case and receive nutrition from their mother’s embrytrophic fluid.
Once they’re ready, the eggs will hatch inside the mother before eventually being given birth to as live young.
It takes about 16 months for the young sharks to develop inside the mother’s body, and females have been observed carrying as many as 80 pups in their wombs.
The baby tiger sharks measure up to 75 cm (2.4 ft) long and are fully formed miniature versions of the adult.
The newly born sharks will immediately start hunting fish and invertebrates. They will tend to stay in shallow coastal waters, including estuaries and sheltered bays, where they’re safe from larger predators (including adults of their own species).
An adult tiger shark has very few natural predators to worry about and will move to the open ocean and hunt off food-filled coral reefs and other high-value sea areas.
Where Do Tiger Sharks Live?
Tiger sharks are found in tropical and subtropical oceans all over the world. Some of the places you might find Tiger sharks are:
They’re generally considered to be a nomadic coastal species. However, it is believed that migration over significant distances can occur for reproduction.
Although they’re usually warmer water sharks, rare sightings have been made in summer months as far south in the Pacific Ocean as New Zealand and as northerly in the Atlantic as the Mediterranean coast of Spain and off Sicily. Tiger Sharks don’t belong in an aquarium.
Tiger Shark Behavior
Tiger sharks are usually solitary predators that generally stick to deeper waters around nutrient-rich reefs.
However, they will venture into shallower waters to hunt specific prey, and in some unique areas, tiger sharks have been observed working in packs to hunt.
Are Tiger Sharks Aggressive?
If you are one of its favorite foods, a tiger shark is the last thing you want to see underwater. But, as a human, will a tiger shark hurt you?
Tiger sharks are a potentially dangerous species. The Shark Attack File from the Florida Museum lists them as responsible for the second-greatest number of attacks on humans after the great white shark.
However, we should recognize that these attacks are extremely rare and can often have been caused by an artificial action such as shark feeding, fishing, or dumping of food waste.
What Do Tiger Sharks Eat?
Tiger sharks are known for being willing to try to eat almost anything.
They have the unfortunate reputation of being the garbage cans of the sea and have been found with artificial objects, including, infamously, vehicle license plates in their stomachs that have been accidentally eaten.
A more normal diet for a tiger shark consists of large fish, seals, dolphins, squid, Octopus, rays, sea birds, and other sharks.
The apex predator’s powerful jaws and sharp teeth mean that it can eat almost anything. Even a sea turtle’s tough shell is efficiently dealt with, and these are known to be a particularly popular and nutritious target for the tiger in many parts of the world.
Tiger sharks are also scavengers and will feed on dead whale carcasses and land animals dumped from livestock cargo ships.
What Hunts Tiger Sharks?
Adult tiger sharks are generally safe from predators as they do their business.
However, pods of killer whales (Orcinus orca) have been seen hunting and killing the shark by driving it to the surface and eventually biting its fins off to incapacitate it before the final kill.
Are Tiger Sharks Endangered?
Tiger sharks are noted as being “near threatened” globally with a decreasing population on the IUCN RED List that monitors the status of species threatened with extinction.
Excessive hunting by humans is the main threat to tiger shark populations, and the species is targeted and killed for their fins, shark liver oil, and sport.
Tiger sharks are one of the most effective predators to have ever swum the earth’s oceans.
This powerful eating machine enjoys almost total freedom in the tropical and subtropical seas, apart from the risk of a rare killer whale encounter.
Although they have a reputation for being relatively mindless eaters, thankfully incidents involving humans are rare.
As one of the most attractive species of sharks, thousands of people each year enjoy diving with tiger sharks in locations around the world without incident.
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.