NatGeo Sharkfest’s back with Bull Shark Bandits and it’s a doozy.

Sharkfest, National Geographic’s spectacular celebration of all things shark kicks off tonight, July 2. “Bull Shark Bandits” kicks off the fete at 8pm EST.

In the far-flung reaches of northeastern Australia, Weipa’s fishing community is reporting a remarkable increase in their catch being pilfered by bull sharks, with losses escalating to a staggering 80%. These audacious sharks have been observed snatching the tuna directly off the hooks during the retrieval process. This intriguing case of brazen theft has piqued the interest of researchers Johan Gustafson and Mariel Familiar López, who are diving headfirst into this maritime mystery.

The duo are seeking to uncover whether a select group of bull sharks has developed the keen ability to identify and single out specific boats, as some local fishers hypothesize. Bull sharks, recognized for their adaptability and intelligence, are known to be opportunistic hunters, often employing a technique of patient stalking to conserve energy before securing an easy meal.

Their investigation is focused on determining if this depredation behavior – exploiting the fishermen’s efforts for a guaranteed meal – has been adopted by a broad population of bull sharks in the region. This would indicate a substantial shift in behavior, which could potentially be due to a variety of ecological or environmental factors.

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Bull shark encounters and attacks are fairly common worldwide, considering the species’ broad distribution in warm, shallow waters and their ability to tolerate freshwater. However, the majority of these encounters result in minor injuries, with fatalities being exceedingly rare.

The research team is also gearing up for an audacious experiment that will bring them face-to-face with these crafty predators. They’re planning to deploy a groundbreaking noise-canceling cage, fabricated entirely from plastic, hoping this innovative approach will allow them to get up close with the bull sharks, known for their nervous disposition when confronted with unfamiliar sounds or objects.

This novel technique may indeed provide a less intrusive means of studying these marine animals, but it’s worth noting the potential risks when operating in turbulent current conditions. As Gustafson and López prepare for this daring expedition, the anticipation is palpable, promising heart-stopping moments beneath the waves.

Bull sharks, also known by their scientific name Carcharhinus leucas, belong to the family Carcharhinidae, which also includes a number of other well-known sharks such as the tiger shark and blue shark. The evolution of bull sharks and their relatives dates back to the late Cretaceous period, approximately 100 million years ago. However, the bull shark as we know it today likely first appeared much later, around the Miocene epoch, roughly 23 to 5 million years ago.

The bull shark is notable for its adaptability and wide-ranging habitat. It is one of the few shark species that can inhabit both salt and freshwater environments. They are euryhaline, meaning they can adapt to different levels of salinity, which allows them to travel far up rivers and even live in freshwater lakes. This unusual tolerance for fresh water has allowed bull sharks to colonize some habitats that other sharks cannot.

In terms of geographical distribution, bull sharks are found in warm coastal areas around the world. They are common along the eastern coast of the Americas, from Massachusetts to southern Brazil in the Atlantic, and from southern California to Ecuador in the Pacific. They are also prevalent in the waters around India, Southeast Asia, and eastern and western Africa. In freshwater, they have been found in rivers such as the Amazon, the Mississippi, and the Brisbane River in Australia.

One of the most notable freshwater populations of bull sharks is found in Lake Nicaragua in Central America, where they were initially believed to be a separate species due to their isolated habitat. It was later discovered that these sharks are able to leap up river rapids, somewhat like salmon, to reach the lake from the ocean.

Bull sharks prefer shallow, coastal waters, and they are often found near the mouths of rivers, bays, and inlets. They generally stay in waters less than 30 meters deep, but they can dive much deeper when necessary. Despite their ability to adapt to a wide variety of habitats, like many shark species, bull sharks face threats from overfishing and habitat destruction.

IMAGE CREDIT: National Geographic.

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