‘Twas a cruel summer 40 years ago. Unsuspecting moviegoers were scared out of their wits – and clean out of the ocean – by a movie about a 25-foot man-eating shark that could destroy fishing boats, tear down docks and completely disembowel the summer economy of a small, fictional New York island. The year was 1975 and the movie, of course, was Steven Spielberg’s Jaws.
It was such a massive hit that it jammed the shark into American’s brains and changed the way we thought about the creature, probably forever. It infected pop culture for years. It also negatively affected shark populations.
But what have we learned about one of Earth’s oldest creatures and perhaps the most effective predator ever? Lots, actually. The movie, despite its highly exaggerated story, stirred a fascination with sharks that lead to excessive and often brutal hunting, but also scientific research that has given us far more knowledge and respect for, and even laws protecting them.
As the movie gets talked about again, here are a few things to think about:
1. The first sharks were the biggest and most ferocious. The C. megalodon was estimated to be, on average, between about 50 feet to 60 feet in length and came into existence about 15.9 million years ago and went extinct about 2.6 million years ago (or during the Cenozoic Era). It looked like a cross between a great white and mako shark and swam in virtually every part of Earth’s prehistoric oceans. While the megalodon is long gone, there are 465 shark species today.
2. Though we might think of them as fierce predators, sharks have a very slow reproduction rate and that makes them extremely vulnerable. They only reach reproductive age at 12 to 15 years old and mothers can only have one or two pups at a time, meaning it can take many years for populations to recover from various threats.
3. As the ocean’s top predator, sharks serve the same purpose in the ocean that tigers, bears, raptors, snakes and other predators serve on land: They keep populations healthy. Since sharks usually get the slowest, oldest or sickest fish, it maintains a healthier gene pool for future populations.
4. Sharks even help clean the ocean by eating dead fish, whale and dolphin.
5. Sharks groom the ecosystems they feed off of and hold things in balance. Their absence in places like coral reefs can quickly alter the populations of other species and do serious damage to those ecosystems. Even the simple presence of a shark can generate an intimidation factor that keeps grazers from destroying things like sea grass beds.
6. Recent research has found tagged sharks and marine animals gravitate toward warmer ocean water – namely 79 degrees and above – which also happens to be the temperatures where hurricanes develop. Following the sharks and other animals will give scientists a picture of what ocean temperatures are like and where to anticipate possible hurricane activity.
7. Dogfish sharks contain a chemical called squalamine, which research has found kills bacterial microbes and might even remove prospective tumor cells.
8. Scientists think the shark’s cornea could one day be used for human transplants.
9. The design of shark skin, or to be precise, the tiny scales on their skin, doesn’t allow for barnacles or algae to attach. The design is now being researched for use in the hulls of ships.
10. An anti-clotting compound found in shark’s blood is being studied for use in the treatment of human heart disease.
11. The highly developed shark immune system – that has been evolving for millions of years – is being examined for use in helping prevent the world’s most deadly diseases.
Wanna Watch It? Turner Classic Movies is presenting Jaws in select theaters nationwide to celebrate the movie’s 40th anniversary. Check Fathom Events for days, times and locations.