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Toward a greater understanding of North Carolina's aquatic resources . . .
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Is There a Difference Between Tiger Sharks and Sand Tiger Sharks?

Although their names may be similar, tiger and sand tiger sharks are two distinct species, with differing characteristics and temperaments.

The tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvieri) is a member of the family Carcharhinidae.   It gets its name from the dark stripes on its gray back, which are more noticeable in juveniles but become pale or disappear entirely with adulthood. Sharks that belong to this particular family and live in tropical waters, as does the tiger, are known as requiem sharks.  The tiger shark’s shape is distinctive: it has a wide mouth, broad nose and a barrel  chest. Its teeth are broad and serrated -- when combined with powerful jaws they are perfect for cutting through prey such as sea turtles, dolphins and seals.


As one of the largest species of sharks, it grows to approximately 18 feet in length. The tiger shark spends most of its time beyond tropic reefs in water as deep as 500 feet. The tiger is active at night, when it will come closer to shore and enter reef areas and lagoons to feed. At certain times of the year, however, the tiger shark may come inshore during the daytime.

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This sand tiger may appear ferocious because it swims with its mouth open, but in North Carolina waters, it has a calm reputation.

Along with the white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), tiger sharks have a dangerous reputation. Nonetheless, they are rarely seen and are not considered to be common. Their habitat includes tropical waters worldwide.


Depending on where you are, sand tiger sharks may or may not be thought of as dangerous. The sand tiger (Odontaspis taurus) belongs to the family Odonaspididae and it is also called the spotted ragtooth or gray nurse shark. It can be found in waters as far north as the Gulf of Maine south to northeast Florida and the eastern Gulf of Mexico and from Brazil to Argentina. It is perhaps the most common shark from Cape Cod to the Chesapeake Bay.


The sand tiger appears fierce because of its three rows of narrow, curved teeth, which are easily visible since this shark often swims with its mouth open. Interestingly, the sand tiger sheds its teeth completely every two weeks or so. The sand tiger is gray or bronze; young sharks may have spots on their sides. Its body is stout, with two large, fleshy dorsal fins. Its nose is short and flat, and almost upturned.


The sand tiger is smaller than the tiger shark, with a maximum length of approximately 11 feet. It is considered more common than the tiger shark, as well. It can be found in shallow bays, sandy coastal areas or near rocky reefs out to depths of 650 feet.

Divers often see these sharks congregating in large numbers around rocky outcroppings offshore. Here in North Carolina, one World War II era shipwreck has become known as a hangout for sand tigers. The tanker Papoose sank in about 130 feet of water southwest of Cape Lookout after an attack by a German U-boat on March 19, 1942. The large numbers of sand tigers that routinely swim around the wreck have made the Papoose one of the country’s most popular SCUBA diving sites.


In our waters, Odontaspis taurus is generally thought of as a gentle shark that is not dangerous unless provoked. Divers who visit the wreck of the Papoose say their encounters with the sand tigers are awe-inspiring and they often come away with a greater appreciation of sharks in general after experiencing their grace first hand.