Why are we afraid of sharks? There's a scientific explanation.

But where did our fear of sharks come from, and how far back does it go? That and other shark-related inquiries below.

Why are people afraid of sharks?

A fear of sharks, or galeophobia, is not irrational, says marine biologist Blake Chapman[1], a shark expert at the University of Queensland in Australia. Simply put, the predatory fish are scary. Great whites[2], for example—the species Hollywood immortalized as mindless killers—have mouths lined with several rows of up to 300 dagger-like teeth that can easily shred through prey. They can also sense tiny electromagnetic fields put out into water by other animals, which helps them scope out their next meal. (Watch: "World's Deadliest: Shark Superpowers[3]")

You're more likely to be crushed to death under a falling vending machine in your office, or a cow that collapses on you in a field than you are to die in the jaws of a shark. But fears don't necessarily match facts, and the fear of being attacked by a shark is more about our emotional response[4] than the reality.

Most of all, we're afraid of losing control. If you're swimming in shark-inhabited water, you don't want the jaws of a mysterious predator to clamp down on you and determine your fate. (Read: "Why Great White Sharks Are Still a Mystery to Us[5]")

"The idea of being munched on by an animal that is in control is another factor," Ropeik says. "It's the nature of the experience, and not the agent, per say."

Where did this fear come from?

Fear is not necessarily something we're born with, but it's something we have developed over time. Infants aren't afraid of snakes and heights, but as adults, our brains become more sensitive to fearful stimuli.

But, oh boy, did our ancestors have a lot to be afraid of! Think back to how ancient people would have survived in their primitive habitats. They would have avoided tall cliffs and wild animals because they knew those threats could potentially kill them, and that's what kept them alive. They learned fear as an adaptation to protect themselves.

"Fear is something that we've inherited from our early ancestors," Chapman says. "[Sharks] are an animal. Biological things like animals are something that we're very prone to fear."

Sharks still seem pretty scary. What are the chances they could kill me?

The slim chances that a shark attack could happen to us are irrelevant. We hear of the word "shark" and we can't help but immediately fill in the blank after it with "attack."

"While we can sense fear and we can interpret fear, the actual feeling of fear is completely outside of our control," Chapman says.

OK, but what can I do to fight my fear of sharks?

There are a few ways you can make yourself less afraid of sharks. You can give yourself the illusion of control, because when you don't feel in control, things seem scarier.

To avoid a shark attack, you can also learn how to not be shark bait by avoiding swimming if you're bleeding or lying on a surfboard. (Sharks commonly go after seals, and from below, a surfboard can look like a seal.) You can also avoid spear fishing, because skewering fish sends out electric signals that can attract sharks. (Read: "10 Tips for Sharing the Beach With Sharks[6]")

Why is it important we still care about sharks?

Chapman says that yes, the number of shark attacks per year is increasing, but this isn't in line with the skyrocketing human population. Of the 80-odd shark attacks that happen each year[7], fatality rates are decreasing thanks to improving medicine and medical response time.

The benefits of having sharks around far outweigh the negatives.

"They are such survivors, they've evolved to basically survive under any stress," Chapman says.

References

  1. ^ Blake Chapman (www.linkedin.com)
  2. ^ Great whites (www.nationalgeographic.com)
  3. ^ World's Deadliest: Shark Superpowers (video.nationalgeographic.com)
  4. ^ more about our emotional response (www.huffingtonpost.com)
  5. ^ Why Great White Sharks Are Still a Mystery to Us (www.nationalgeographic.com)
  6. ^ 10 Tips for Sharing the Beach With Sharks (www.nationalgeographic.com)
  7. ^ 80-odd shark attacks that happen each year (www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu)

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