Zoo opens permanent home for sand tiger sharks
A reporter once asked Allan Marshall, curator of aquatic life for the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, what exactly was the appeal of sharks.
At just that moment, a group of children came running into the exhibit and erupted into immediate shrieks of delight and excitement: "Look! Sharks!"
"Um ... that," Marshall told the reporter. "They're sharks. What else can you say?"
Something about the sleek, super-efficient seaborne predators just fascinates people. Sharks are awesome. Do we really need an explanation why•
This scenario -- the running, shrieking children, at least -- replayed itself at least a dozen times over a half-hour on a beautiful early June afternoon. This weekend is the official opening of the permanent sand tiger shark exhibit, where visitors can observe the shark tank from above, outside or even below. You can walk through an eerily luminescent tunnel, with the sharks swimming around and above you.
This space originally was supposed to house a walrus, but they are extremely difficult to come by. After about four years of trying, the zoo decided to go with sand tiger sharks instead.
"Sand tigers are a very good aquarium specimen," Marshall says. "They look nasty, and they can handle cooler temperatures."
They're native to the warm waters along the East Coast of the United States -- as well as South Africa and Australia -- so they're not entirely unfamiliar with our weather, although the water in the tank can be heated during the winter.
And yes, they look quite scary. Sand tigers, also known as "ragged tooth sharks" in South Africa, can grow to 8 to 10 feet long and weigh as much as 350 pounds. Despite their size, sand tigers move effortlessly through the water, with rows of vicious-looking teeth hanging out of the sides of their mouths.
Then again, that terrifying appearance is only part of the story, and has cost the animals dearly.
"Everybody loves to hate sharks," Marshall says. "Plenty of people have said to me, 'The last way I'd want to die is to get eaten by a shark.'"
Marshall says that they're really no danger to humans. Sand tigers eat fish, like bonito, mackerel and bluefish -- not people.
"About one-and-a-half people are killed every year by sharks," Marshall says. "Compare that to what humans do to sharks -- we kill 70 million sharks a year."
Sand tiger sharks are a protected species and are not aggressive. But the toll on their populations from sport fishing, accidental catches by commercial fishing operations, and for food, is very high. Fishing fleets seeking ingredients for shark fin soup are especially brutal: They catch the sharks, cut off their fins, and throw them back in the ocean, where they quickly sink to the bottom.
Historically, "sand tigers were hunted because people thought they were dangerous," Marshall says. "Everytime someone got bitten, they got blamed. But there's never been an unprovoked attack in the wild."
Of course, not provoking them is the key. In case you feel tempted to pull a sand tiger shark's tail -- don't do it.
Marshall goes swimming with the sharks just about every day, and has for 20 years. Some of the more curious ones come up close to see what he's doing, but none try to bite him.
Don't expect a feeding frenzy at lunchtime, either. Despite the common mythology, sand tiger sharks aren't driven mad by blood in the water, and usually polish off their meals of small fish in a few quick bites.
Curiously, the female sharks have thicker skin than males. This is helpful, because mating involves the male biting the female in order to keep in place.
Shark reproduction actually seems to be the scariest thing about them. Female sharks can carry a number of baby sharks in the womb. The biggest and/or first to develop will then eat its brothers and sisters in a process charmingly known as "intro-uterine cannibalism."
The Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium has 12 sand tiger sharks -- eight adults and four little ones who aren't quite ready for the big exhibit.
During this opening weekend, a number of family-friendly activities will be offered, including face painting, sandcastle-making, trivia games and live entertainment hosted by Radio Disney. The sand tiger shark exhibit's grand opening is from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. today through Sunday, and is free with zoo admission.Additional Information:
Sand Tiger Shark Grand Opening
When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. today-Sunday. Zoo hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Admission: $12; $11 for senior citizens; $10 for ages 2-13; free for younger than 2
Where: Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Highland Park