2016
BEHAVIOURAL ECOLOGY AND SOCIOBIOLOGY

How solitary are white sharks: social interactions or just spatial proximity?

R Findlay, E Gennari, M Cantor, DP Tittensor.

Abstract

White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are circumglobally distributed large apex predators. While ecologically important, there is very limited study of their social behaviour. Although evident in other large, apex marine predators (e.g. toothed whales) and smaller elasmobranchs (e.g. blacktip reef sharks), the ability of any large pelagic elasmobranch to demonstrate social preferences, tolerance or grouping behaviour is largely unknown. Here, we test whether white sharks in a near-coastal environment form non-random associations with other conspecifics or simply share the same space at the same time. We photo-identified 323 individuals—74 % juvenile females (175–300 cm)—during chumming events at six different sites in Mossel Bay, South Africa, over a 6-year period (2008–2013), and tested for grouping behaviour. We found evidence for random associations among individuals, though spatio-temporal co-occurrence of white sharks in close proximity was weakly structured according to sex and, potentially, body size. Such biological traits may play a minor part in structuring co-occurrence of individuals at fine spatio-temporal scales, which could reflect ontogenetic preferences in diet and site fidelity, or differing tolerance levels for conspecifics of different sexes and sizes. Our study strengthens the evidence that large pelagic shark species are generally solitary and display limited social behaviour.