Hammerhead sharks are iconic species easily identified by their characteristically hammer-shaped heads. This strange adaptation gives hammerheads binocular vision that helps them locate their prey, which is almost as diverse as the hammerhead itself.
There are nine different species of hammerhead shark, each with its own unique dietary requirements.
The great hammerhead has a dangerous diet that sees it take on potentially lethal stingrays, while scalloped hammerheads are more generalist predators, consuming everything from fish to octopus.
One of the most unusual hammerhead diets belongs to the bonnethead, which thrives on a predominantly vegetarian diet.
Some dishes are popular with all hammerheads, even though some may require larger servings than others!
What do Hammerhead Sharks Eat?
Let’s start with a quick summary of the different species of hammerheads and their favorite meals.
|Great Hammerhead||Squid, skates, rays, and other sharks. Also, bony fish and crustaceans.|
|Scalloped Hammerhead||Bony fish like sardines and herring, cuttlefish, squid, and octopus.|
|Smooth Hammerhead||Schooling fish, stingrays, and skates, as well as crustaceans, shrimps, and other sharks.|
|Winghead Hammerhead||Bony fish, squid, octopus, and crustaceans.|
|Smalleye Hammerhead||Shrimp as juveniles and catfish as adults|
|Scoophead||Flounders, squid, octopus, and small sharks.|
|Scalloped Bonnethead||Fish and crustaceans, probably, although this species is so rare, very little is known about it or its diet.|
|Bonnethead||Crabs and seagrass|
|Carolina Hammerhead||Scientists suspect they feed on squid, bony fish, shrimp, and crab but there isn’t enough information to support this theory as the Carolina is a very newly discovered species of hammerhead.|
Stingrays and squid are popular among all hammerheads but don’t attract the smaller bonnetheads which tend to restrict themselves to crabs and other crustaceans.
Perhaps these smaller sharks lack the immunity to the stingray’s venomous barbs, so stay away from these potentially dangerous prey.
Great and scalloped hammerheads appear to have little trouble dealing with the stingray’s defenses and are often seen with barbs sticking out of their mouths.
One poor individual was found in Florida with 96 venomous spines embedded in and around his mouth.
The small-eye hammerhead has a rather unique diet consisting of shrimp and catfish. This eating regime gives it an unusual pigmentation, making it appear almost golden, like its prey.
Scientists suspect this coloration acts as a form of camouflage, protecting the smalleye hammerhead from possible predation by larger sharks.
The Hammerhead Shark Diet
The hammerhead shark diet is predominantly carnivorous, and even the bonnethead would struggle to survive on a diet of seagrass alone.
Like most sharks, hammerheads are opportunistic hunters whose feeding behavior is determined more by the availability of prey than its flavor.
Studies have found that some scalloped hammerheads eat mainly dart squids, while other populations seemed to consume more Chubb mackerel than anything else, suggesting they simply eat whatever’s abundant in their habitat.
Some species of hammerhead will stop at nothing to sustain themselves and will even turn on each other when times are hard.
Such cannibalistic behavior isn’t all that uncommon amongst sharks, with some species eating their siblings before they’re even born!
The hammerhead’s taste for shark meat places it at the top of the food chain in coastal ecosystems around Australia. This behavior gives them a critical role in maintaining the balance within those systems.
If the hammerheads were to disappear, the population of smaller predators would explode, decimating some fish species and disrupting the balance.
Where hammerhead sharks live on a mainly pescatarian diet, they target bony fish like herrings and sardines.
Only the scoophead seems to have developed a taste for flounder, possibly in an attempt to avoid competition with other hammerheads, like the bonnethead, which specializes in crab.
How Much do Hammerhead Sharks Eat?
Hammerhead sharks generally eat as much as they can but don’t gorge themselves to the extent that blue sharks do.
Exactly how much a hammerhead needs to consume to survive is still unknown, although research indicates that young pups need around 3.5% of their body weight everyday to maintain growth.
For a baby hammerhead, that’s not very much as they only weigh around 6 lb, meaning they’d consume just over 3 ounces of food daily. As they mature and grow, their appetite inevitably grows with them.
The 1,300 lb hammerhead that killed a 6-foot shark off the coast of Florida in July helped himself to a meal of between 100 and 200 lbs, theoretically enough to last him two to four days, assuming it only needs 3.5% of its own body weight to survive.
How do Hammerhead Sharks Hunt for Food?
Hammerheads have a range of hunting techniques that they employ for different target species.
The great and scalloped hammerheads are primarily solitary hunters who rely on their large heads, or cephalofoils, to locate and immobilize their prey.
Wide-set eyes give the sharks excellent vision while the network of electroreceptors coursing through their cephalofoils helps them to pinpoint their prey’s exact location.
Once a hammerhead locates a stingray, for example, it pins it to the seafloor with its massive head while feeding on its wings.
On occasion, hammerheads also hunt in packs, pushing fish and small sharks toward the shore as if they were driving sheep.
All species of hammerhead sharks are more active at night and do most of their hunting between dusk and dawn. Almost all stay close to the seafloor, where much of their prey attempts to hide.
Swimming above the seafloor, the hammerhead sweeps its head in a wide arc, scanning for the electrical signals that enable them to locate its hidden prey.
What Animals Compete for Food with Hammerhead Sharks?
Hammerhead sharks that feed on stingrays have very little competition, as few other predators are willing to take on these dangerous creatures.
Smaller hammerheads relying on a fish diet have more rivals in the form of other sharks. In some instances, those sharks may even turn on the hammerheads and target them as prey.
For instance, tiger sharks prey on rays and bony fish, just like many species of hammerhead. Unfortunately, they also prey on the hammerheads themselves.
Sperm whales and dolphins also feed on similar prey to hammerheads, with the sperm whales targeting squid and dolphins, a variety of fish, octopus, and shrimps.
Hammerheads tend to avoid competition amongst themselves by diversifying their diets.
Scoopheads frequently share their territory with bonnetheads and smalleye hammerheads but focus their attention on flounders, leaving bonnetheads to scoop up the crabs and the smalleye hammerheads to enjoy their diet of shrimp of catfish.
Do Hammerheads Eat Dolphins?
Hammerhead sharks aren’t known to prey on dolphins, although some suggest that dolphins may prey on them!
With their speed, agility, and surprisingly powerful snouts, a pod of dolphins can quite easily overpower a small hammerhead, even if they don’t choose to eat them once the battle is over.
What Eats a Hammerhead Shark?
Other sharks, particularly tiger sharks, prey on smaller hammerhead species and juveniles whenever the opportunity arises. Even adult hammerheads are vulnerable to attack from orcas and possibly larger shark species like the great white.
Do Hammerheads Eat other Sharks?
Hammerheads do predate other sharks and even each other if push comes to shove.
Great hammerheads happily target smaller species like the blacktip, while the scalloped hammerhead appears to prefer the slightly different flavor of the blacktip reef shark.
Each species of hammerhead has a slightly different diet, but being opportunistic hunters, they’ll happily eat off each other menus if the dishes are available.
Only the bonnethead shark appears to be highly selective, feeding only on crabs and seagrass, with the occasional fish thrown in for variety.
Hammerheads are fascinating sharks whose curious heads have enabled them to develop unique hunting techniques that no other shark can mimic.
With their large heads and wide-set eyes, very little can escape the gaze of the mighty hammerhead, and once in sight, there’s little chance of escape.
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.