We tend to think of sharks as vicious carnivores that will take a bite out of anything that comes their way, but that’s not an accurate representation of these diverse species.
Some sharks are scavengers that satisfy their nutritional requirements by munching on decomposing carcasses. Others restrict themselves to tiny organisms no bigger than your fingernail.
Some, like the notorious great white, are formidable predators, while others have adopted a more flexitarian attitude to food.
We’re going to look at the diets of 20 different shark species to find out what they’d order if the ocean was the equivalent of one big fast-food outlet.
What do Whale Sharks Eat?
Whale sharks are amongst the largest creatures in our oceans, but they don’t use their size and strength to capture prey.
Instead, they drift around the oceans filtering vast quantities of seawater and extracting tiny organisms with their gill rakers.
The whale shark’s diet consists of small fish, shrimp, and plankton. They also consume some vegetarian side dishes in the form of phytoplankton, or microscopic pieces of marine algae.
What do Basking Sharks Eat?
Basking sharks are filter-feeders like the whale shark but have an even more limited diet. Although basking sharks eat a variety of zooplankton, there’s one little critter that they love above all else.
Copepods are tiny crustaceans and the basking shark’s favorite food. Given a choice, it will usually opt for one that belongs to the Calanoida order but prioritizes quantity over quality!
Basking sharks have enormous mouths, capable of filtering around “2,000 tons of seawater an hour, but tiny throats. According to Shane Wasik, the founder of Basking Shark Scotland, “it couldn’t eat a human even if it wanted to!”
What do Megamouth Sharks Eat?
Another filter-feeder, the megamouth shark eats similar prey to the whale and basking sharks but does it slightly differently. It uses suction to pull the tiny organisms into its mouth, using its gill-rakers to filter out the seawater.
Megamouth sharks have impressive appetites but satisfy their hunger with the smallest organisms. It lives on a diet of plankton, specializing in krill, and consumes copepods and zooplankton as snacks between meals.
What do Greenland Sharks Eat?
Greenland sharks are slow-moving creatures that inhabit some of the world’s coldest waters. Although they can hunt and kill, they mainly feast on the decaying flesh of dead animals.
Some unlikely candidates have been found in the stomachs of Greenland sharks, including polar bears, horses, and even reindeer.
Evidence suggests that Greenland sharks may even sneak up on sleeping seals, using camouflage and slow speeds to ambush their resting prey.
What do Hammerhead Sharks Eat?
There are nine different species of hammerhead shark, and between them, they have a very varied diet. While most hammerheads prey on other sharks, fish, squid, and crustaceans, the bonnethead has a more flexitarian diet.
A study conducted at the Florida International University found that Bonnetheads not only survive but thrive on a diet consisting of “90 percent seagrass and 10 percent squid.”
Bonnetheads have “a crucial enzyme that helps break down cellulose.” There is no evidence of such an enzyme in any other shark species, making the bonnethead something of a phenomenon.
What do Nurse Sharks Eat?
Nurse sharks have eclectic tastes, ranging from snails and crabs to squid and stingrays. Like many other species of shark, they also eat fish and shrimp.
Although pieces of coral and algae are sometimes found in the stomachs of nurse sharks, this is believed to be “a part of the process of sucking up other nutritional food” rather than selection.
Nurse sharks are primarily bottom feeders that use a sucking action to capture and consume their prey. Studies show they “possess the skeletal and muscular adaptations that should permit a suction pump form of feeding.”
What do Great White Sharks Eat?
Great white sharks are opportunistic hunters and scavengers. As youngsters, their diet consists mainly of fish, but as they mature, they start eating more marine mammals, like seals and dolphins.
Although they are one of the ocean’s apex predators, they won’t turn down a free meal and “are known to scavenge marine mammal carcasses.”
Great whites aren’t indiscriminate killers and have a fairly refined palate. Unfortunately, they have to put their prey into their mouths before they can figure out whether or not they want to eat it.
Tastes buds line the great white’s mouth and throat and indicate the suitability of its potential prey. In the case of humans, it almost always chooses to spit them out!
What do Tiger Sharks Eat?
It might be quicker to mention the things a tiger shark doesn’t eat rather than trying to list all the things it does. Known as the “garbage cans of the sea,” tiger sharks will eat almost anything.
They do prefer a healthy diet of fish, turtles, snakes, and sea birds, but if a tire or suit of armor comes their way, they’ll try that too!
Their sharp, serrated teeth mean they can make a meal out of virtually anything, but even they tend to turn their noses up at humans.
What do Bull Sharks Eat?
Bull sharks are extremely aggressive and highly opportunistic. They will eat almost anything and, with their powerful jaws, rarely have a problem securing a good meal.
Bull sharks “bite with the greatest force among sharks, pound-for-pound,” which enables them to hold onto large prey, even when hunting in murky waters.
They won’t hesitate to prey on other sharks and even devour smaller individuals of their own species if the opportunity arises. There’s even evidence of bull sharks sizing up a pod of hippos!
For the most part, bull sharks have a fairly traditional seafood diet consisting of fish, crustaceans, stingrays, and the occasional marine mammal.
What do Goblin Sharks Eat?
The goblin shark has been around for around 125 million years, which explains its prehistoric appearance.
They exist in such deep water that they never see the sun, which makes hunting somewhat challenging.
To get around this problem, the goblin shark has a network of electroreceptors in its snout that it uses to detect the electrical currents emitted by its potential prey.
Using stealth and a handy protruding jaw, the goblin shark preys on strange, deep-water fish, like rattails and dragonfish. It also eats squid, crabs, and mollusks.
What do Leopard Sharks Eat?
The eye-catching leopard shark is a bottom-feeder whose mouth opens downwards to make it easier to suck its prey out of the sea’s sandy bottom.
As youngsters, they mainly eat crabs, fish eggs, and worms, but as they get older, their diet diversifies and starts to include more fish.
Leopard sharks are binge-eaters that “gorge and digest” rather than follow “a continuous feeding regime.”
Leopard sharks are solitary creatures that hunt only at night. They rely on their electromagnetic receptors to locate their prey, which often hides in the sand.
What do Lemon Sharks Eat?
Despite their name, lemon sharks aren’t that fond of citrus fruit. With a diet far more suitable for an ocean-dweller, the lemon shark’s is “dominated by teleosts.”
Teleosts are bony fishes that have rayed fins and swim bladders. There are about 30,000 species, with new ones being discovered all the time.
In addition to teleosts, lemon sharks also hunt other types of fish and elasmobranchs. They will even prey on their own species if the opportunity arises.
What do Mako Sharks Eat?
Mako sharks are high-speed predators that specialize in capturing equally high-speed prey. Reaching speeds of up to 56 kph, the powerful mako shark is no match for an unsuspecting tuna and will even leap out of the water if that’s what it takes to ambush its prey.
Unlike other shark species, makos aren’t interested in decomposing carcasses and restrict themselves to a diet of live prey.
Nevertheless, studies show it has a diverse appetite compared to others, “feeding on many species of teleosts and cephalopods.” In other words, they mainly eat fish and squid.
What do Frilled Sharks Eat?
Frilled sharks have a prehistoric appearance and resemble eels more closely than other sharks. They even move like eels, especially when hunting.
Frilled sharks have long, backward-facing teeth perfect for grasping slippery prey, like squid. Although their teeth are ideally designed for hunting squid, frilled sharks also eat other sharks and various fish.
It’s thought that frilled sharks may even use their bright white teeth to lure fish into striking range. Once then, the shark lunges at them before swallowing them whole.
What do Blue Sharks Eat?
Blue sharks are probably the most common and widespread of all existing shark species. They spend their lives in the open ocean and live off similarly pelagic prey species, like herring, hake, cod, haddock, and mackerel.
Blue sharks are active almost all the time but are generally quite lethargic. They are capable of sudden bursts of speed and can jet forward suddenly to secure their prey.
Although usually solitary, blue sharks sometimes work in a pack and, once faced with an abundance of food, will “feed until they are close to bursting.”
They often eat so much that they have to regurgitate their meal. They will do this repeatedly, “making their hunger seem insatiable.”
What do Blacktip Reef Sharks Eat?
Blacktip reef sharks employ various hunting strategies to catch their preferred prey. Hunting together in small packs, they sometimes chase the fish into the shallows, beaching them and themselves in the process.
They soon wriggle back into the water to start the pursuit all over again. The target of this beaching method of hunting is usually mullet, but they will use the same technique to capture other small schooling fishes, such as herring, menhaden, and anchovies.
In addition to schooling fish, blacktip reef sharks also eat reef fish, squid, and the occasional crustacean.
What do Sand Tiger Sharks Eat?
Sandtiger Sharks start hunting before they’re even born, with the strongest embryos cannibalizing their weaker siblings. After birth, those cannibalistic tendencies disappear, and the juvenile sharks start feeding on bony fish instead of each other.
In addition to fish like wrasse, haddock, herring, and snapper, sand tiger sharks also feed on other sharks and rays. They’ll also nibble on the occasional crustacean and eat squid from time to time.
Although they usually hunt alone, sand tiger sharks will hunt cooperatively, herding schooling fish to make capturing their fast-moving prey a little easier.
What do Angel Sharks Eat?
With their flattened bodies and broad pectoral fins, angel sharks look more like rays than sharks. They also employ hunting techniques more commonly associated with rays.
Lying camouflage on the bottom of the ocean, angel sharks lie in wait until their unsuspecting prey comes within range. They then strike at an alarming speed, grabbing their victim “within a 1/10 of a second.”
The angel shark uses this technique to predate small fish, squid, octopus, and crustaceans.
As they mature, studies suggest that angel sharks develop a taste for butterfish, Atlantic croaker, and goatfish, choosing these over the rubbery flesh of the squid.
What do Horn Sharks Eat?
The horn shark is an elusive creature that spends its days hiding in caves, under ledges, or obscured in a patch of seaweed. At night, however, the horn shark turns into a formidable, albeit sluggish, predator.
The horn shark uses smell to locate its prey, which it then grabs either by extending its jaw or sucking its victim in.
Horn sharks have strong jaws and flat molar-like teeth that are ideal for crushing crustaceans, mollusks, and urchins.
They mainly eat crustaceans from the Anomura group, which includes hermit crabs and squat lobsters, but also enjoy squid and fish.
What do Wobbegong Sharks Eat?
There are 12 species of wobbegong sharks, all of which use stealth and ambush to secure their prey. Lying motionless on a reef or the ocean floor, wobbegongs lure their prey closer using their tails and the elaborate tassels that decorate the heads of many species.
Once a victim comes within striking range, the wobbegong lunges at it, quickly securing it in its large jaws.
Wobbegongs only feed at night, so specialize in catching nocturnal fish, “such as sweepers, soldierfish, and squirrelfish.” They also prey on crabs, octopi, lobster, and other species of small sharks.
Not all sharks are powerful, fast-moving predators with a taste for fresh meat. Greenland sharks eat as much decomposing flesh as they do live prey, while Bonnetheads can thrive on a mainly vegetarian diet.
Filter-feeders like the basking shark and whale shark live on a strict diet of tiny organisms, but for most sharks, squid and fish are among the most popular dishes, closely followed by crab and other crustaceans.
Despite that, the diet of sharks is far more varied than you might originally suspect, which why these influential predators are so important in maintaining the balance in our marine ecosystems.
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.