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15 Nurse Shark Facts: Description, Habitat, Fun Behaviors, and Much More

Nurse shark facts - datos sobre el tiburón nodriza

For a long time, it was thought that sharks couldn’t sleep because they were unable to breathe if they stopped swimming. However, Nurse Sharks are true sleepers. This is just one of the many nurse shark facts you will discover today.

Below, we will tell you interesting and fun nurse sharks facts including the meaning of their scientific name, the reason behind their common name, the highlights of their physical characteristics, and much more.

Take a look at the table of contents and discover all the fun nurse sharks’ facts you will learn today.

Nurse Shark Taxonomy Facts

1. Nurse Sharks Scientific Name

The scientific name of the two species of nurse sharks that exist is Ginglymostoma. It is a Greek word that means ” hinged mouth”.

However, cirratum, the name of the species that we can see in the Caribbean, is from Latin and means “curled or wavy”.

Nevertheless, the unami species received this name in honor of the (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) since it was scholars from this institution who published their discovery as a different species

It is necessary to say that neither the spotted nurse shark nor the grey one is a different species belonging to the genus Ginglymostoma.

The spotted nurse shark is actually a leucitic Ginglymostoma cirratum. In humans, people who have this recessive gene that gives white color to the skin are generally called albinos. However, in nurse sharks, this gene manifests itself in individuals with spotted skin.

The grey nurse shark does not belong to the Ginglymostomatidae family. It is called with a similar name because it has a similar habitat.

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Nurse Shark Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Chondrichthyes

Order: Orectolobiformes

Family: Ginglymostomatidae

Genus: Ginglymostoma

Species: Ginglymostoma cirratum, unami

2. Why Is a Nurse Shark Called a Nurse Shark?

Some say that the nurse shark gets its name from the way it gently sucks food from the bottom of the ocean, reminding one of a baby suckling. Others defend that it is the way a nurse would suck a wound from a patient. Although honestly, I have never seen nurses sucking wounds.

It could come from an Old English word, “nusse,” meaning “cat shark.” In fact, in the Spanish Caribbean, the nurse shark is commonly referred to as “gata” (the feminine form of “gato” or cat) and sometimes as “tiburón gato,” presumably because of its “whiskers” (nasal barbels).

Nonetheless, the most likely theory is that it comes from the Old English word “hurse,” referring to its habitat, in other words, “bottom of the sea shark.”

Nurse Shark Description and Fun Facts

3. What Does a Nurse Shark Look Like?

Nurse sharks are distinguished by their flattened body and wide head. Their color varies from gray to yellow-brown; some have small dark spots when they are young.

They have two broadly rounded dorsal fins of virtually identical size and their tail fin, unlike other sharks, does not have a distinct lower lobe.


4. How Big Are Nurse Sharks?

This species has been recorded to reach a maximum length of 10.1 feet/ 3,09 metros. Although, the average length of a nurse shark ranges from 5-9 feet/ 1.52-2.74 meters.

As far as weight goes, the heaviest adult ever reported to the International Game and Fish Association was 120 kg/ 263.8 pounds.


5. Nurse Shark Mouth, Jaw, and Teeth

The mouth of the nurse shark deserves special attention as it is small and sits under the head, practically glued to the ground. It works like a vacuum cleaner.

On both sides of it, below the nostril, we can distinguish two chins or nose whiskers. Nurse sharks use them to discover hidden prey on the seabed.

Then, it starts the suction process, which is nothing more than a super powerful pharynx that absorbs food at high speed. So powerful is it that it can rip a snail out of its shell. This technique is very useful, as the nurse shark can extract elusive prey well hidden in the crevices of the reef.

Nurse sharks use their mouth for breathing as well. Nurse sharks suck the water and carry it to the gills, which extract oxygen.

The nurse shark’s jaw accommodates 30 to 42 teeth in the upper rows and 28 to 34 in the lower jaw. These teeth are small and serrated. Unlike other sharks, they are not overlapping, but perfectly aligned.

New rows of teeth are constantly appearing in the nurse shark’s mouth, pushing the older ones forward and they fall off easily. During the winter, nurse sharks shed their teeth less frequently, approximately every 50 to 70 days. However, a new tooth row appears every 10-20 days in the summer.

Pictures Of a Nurse Sharks’ Mouth

Nurse Shark Mouth

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Nurse Shark Jaw

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Nurse Shark Teeth

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Nurse Shark Habitat and Location Facts


6. Where Do Nurse Sharks Live?

Regarding the distribution of nurse sharks, we have to distinguish very well between the two known species.

Cirratums prefer temperate and tropical coastal waters of the Pacific and are widely distributed on both sides of the tropical and subtropical Atlantic oceans.

On the other hand, Unami can only be found in the eastern Pacific from southeastern Baja California to Peru.


7. Bottom Dwelling Sharks

These two species have the same habitat since they live attached to the bottom of the sea. Nurse sharks prefer sandy or rocky bottoms near coral reefs and in shallow water. There, they hunt and are generally quite faithful to their environments, hunting at night and returning to doze, during the day, in the same area.

Nurse Shark Pics

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Nurse Shark Behavior Fun Facts

8. Nurse Shark Reproduction

The way cat sharks mate is one of the most researched of all shark species.

Males approach resting females and bite them on their fins, flip them over, and insert their sexual organs.

After mating, it takes the female around six months to give birth to 20 to 30 baby sharks that measure around 27 to 30 cm/ 11 to 12 in in length.

Nurse sharks have ovoviviparous reproduction, in which the young develop inside the mother’s uterus and are nourished by the yolk of their eggs. After that, the female gives birth to them.

The nurse shark takes around five to six months to gestate its young. Female gives birth from 21 to 50 little ones, with an average of 34.

Nurse shark only reproduces every other year.


9. Nurse Shark Lifespan

The nurse sharks’ lifespan is not known for certain, but it is thought that they can live up to 25 years in captivity. According to the Shark Foundation nurse sharks in the wild are believed to live even longer, potentially up to 30 years or more.


10. Nurse Shark Diet

The nurse shark feeds mainly on invertebrates (squid, shrimp, crabs, cuttlefish, sea urchins) and small fish (catfish, mullet, and rays).

Some studies have found that cat sharks are very fond of juvenile spiny lobsters.


11. Are Nurse Sharks Social?

The truth is that nurse sharks tend to group, but the appropriate conditions must be met for this to happen. For example, in the Gulf of Mexico, where Dressel Divers operates, it is common to find them in groups because they have a large amount of food available. Piles of nurse sharks of up to 40 individuals have been found resting on top of each other. Scientists dismiss that these communities are formed for protection and bet that these groups occur to facilitate mating.


12. Nurse Shark Predators

There are no known species that have a marked preference for nurse sharks, except humans, of course. However, remains of nurse sharks have been found in the stomachs of lemon and tiger sharks. There are also documented instances of attacks by hammerheads and bull sharks, but they were unable to pierce the skin of the nurse sharks.

Nurse Shark Pics

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Other Nurse Shark Facts

13. Can You Eat Nurse Shark?

According to U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s “Seafood Selector,” it is not recommended to eat Nurse Sharks due to their high levels of mercury. Eating Nurse Sharks can be dangerous and can have serious health consequences. It is best to avoid consuming this species of shark.

The nurse shark has been used for its liver oil, hides, and meat in the past, but not currently. Its use has mainly been for crab bait.


14. Nurse Shark Attacks on Humans

Generally, Nurse Sharks are considered to be harmless to humans, and attacks on humans are extremely rare. However, they are still wild animals and have the potential to be dangerous if they perceive a threat.


15. Swimming With Nurse Sharks

Nurse sharks are highly attractive to eco-tourism enthusiasts. In fact, divers love encountering them in the Caribbean, as they are harmless and allow for close observation.

In the last months of spring and summer, divers who choose Jamaica for their vacations can enjoy a unique show. Nurse sharks concentrate on a reef that we frequently visit from our base at Dressel Divers in Montego Bay. There, they carry out their courtship and reproduction rituals. Do you want to come and see them and check that all these facts about nurse sharks are true? Drop us a line.

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