Thresher shark

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Thresher shark
Temporal range: 49–0  Ma [1]
Lutetian to Recent
Pelagic thresher (A. pelagicus)
Scientific classification OOjs UI icon edit-ltr.svg
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chondrichthyes
Subclass: Elasmobranchii
Subdivision: Selachimorpha
Order: Lamniformes
Family: Alopiidae
Bonaparte, 1838
Genus: Alopias
Rafinesque, 1810
Type species
Alopias vulpinus
Bonnaterre, 1788
  • Alopecias Müller and Henle, 1837
  • Alopius Swainson, 1838
  • Vulpecula Jarocki, 1822
Pelagic thresher (A. pelagicus) jumping in Costa Rica Thresher shark jumping.jpg
Pelagic thresher (A. pelagicus) jumping in Costa Rica

Thresher sharks are large mackerel sharks of the family Alopiidae found in all temperate and tropical oceans of the world; the family contains three extant species, all within the genus Alopias.

All three thresher shark species have been listed as vulnerable by the World Conservation Union since 2007 (IUCN). [2] All three are popular big-game sport fish,[ citation needed ] and additionally they are hunted commercially for their meat, livers (for shark liver oil), skin (for shagreen) and fins (for use in delicacies such as shark-fin soup).

Despite being active predatory fish, thresher sharks do not appear to be of threat to humans.[ citation needed ]


The genus and family name derive from the Greek word ἀλώπηξ, alṓpēx, meaning fox. As a result, the long-tailed or common thresher shark, Alopias vulpinus, is also known as the fox shark. [3] The common name is derived from a distinctive, thresher-like tail or caudal fin which can be as long as the body of the shark itself.


The three extant thresher shark species are all in the genus Alopias. The possible existence of a hitherto unrecognized fourth species was revealed during the course of a 1995 allozyme analysis by Blaise Eitner. This species is apparently found in the eastern Pacific off Baja California, and has previously been misidentified as the bigeye thresher. So far, it is only known from muscle samples from one specimen, and no aspect of its morphology has been documented. [4]

Phylogeny and evolution



A. vulpinus

undescribed Alopias sp.

A. superciliosus

A. pelagicus



Phylogeny of Alopiidae [4] [5]

Based on cytochrome b genes, Martin and Naylor (1997) concluded the thresher sharks form a monophyletic sister group to the clade containing the families Cetorhinidae (basking shark) and Lamnidae (mackerel sharks). The megamouth shark (Megachasma pelagios) was placed as the next-closest relative to these taxa, though the phylogenetic position of that species has yet to be resolved with confidence. Cladistic analyses by Compagno (1991) based on morphological characters, and Shimada (2005) based on dentition, have both corroborated this interpretation. [5] [6]

Within the family, an analysis of allozyme variation by Eitner (1995) found the common thresher is the most basal member, with a sister relationship to a group containing the unrecognized fourth Alopias species and a clade comprising the bigeye and pelagic threshers. However, the position of the undescribed fourth species was only based on a single synapomorphy (derived group-defining character) in one specimen, so some uncertainty in its placement remains. [4]

Distribution and habitat

Although occasionally sighted in shallow, inshore waters, thresher sharks are primarily pelagic; they prefer the open ocean, characteristically preferring water 500 metres (1,600 ft) and less.[ citation needed ] Common threshers tend to be more prevalent in coastal waters over continental shelves. Common thresher sharks are found along the continental shelves of North America and Asia of the North Pacific, but are rare in the Central and Western Pacific. In the warmer waters of the Central and Western Pacific, bigeye and pelagic thresher sharks are more common. A thresher shark was seen on the live video feed from one of the ROVs monitoring BP's Macondo oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. This is significantly deeper than the 500 m (1,600 ft) previously thought to be their limit. A bigeye has also been found in the western Mediterranean, and so distribution may be wider than previously believed, or environmental factors may be forcing sharks to search for new territories. [7] [8]

Anatomy and appearance

Small common thresher (A.  vulpinus) caught at Pacifica Pier, California Pacifica thresher shark.jpg
Small common thresher (A.  vulpinus) caught at Pacifica Pier, California

Named for their exceptionally long, thresher-like heterocercal tail or caudal fins (which can be as long as the total body length), thresher sharks are active predators; the tail is used as a weapon to stun prey. [9] [10] The thresher shark has a short head and a cone-shaped nose. The mouth is generally small, and the teeth range in size from small to large. [11] By far the largest of the three species is the common thresher, Alopias vulpinus, which may reach a length of 6.1 metres (20 ft) and a mass of over 500 kilograms (1,100 lb). The bigeye thresher, A. superciliosus, is next in size, reaching a length of 4.9 m (16 ft); at just 3 m (10 ft), the pelagic thresher, A. pelagicus, is the smallest.

Thresher sharks are fairly slender, with small dorsal fins and large, recurved pectoral fins. With the exception of the bigeye thresher, these sharks have relatively small eyes positioned to the forward of the head. Coloration ranges from brownish, bluish or purplish gray dorsally with lighter shades ventrally. [12] The three species can be roughly distinguished by the primary color of the dorsal surface of the body. Common threshers are dark green, bigeye threshers are brown and pelagic threshers are generally blue. Lighting conditions and water clarity can affect how any one shark appears to an observer, but the color test is generally supported when other features are examined.


The thresher shark mainly feeds on schooling pelagic fish such as bluefish, juvenile tuna and mackerel, which they are known to follow into shallow waters, as well as squid and cuttlefish. [13] Crustaceans and occasionally seabirds are also eaten. The thresher shark stuns its prey by using its elongated tail as a whipping weapon.


External videos
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Stunning tail: Thresher sharks evolved to slap and kill their preyNBC News
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg Thresher Shark Stun Prey With Tail-Slap Live Science

Thresher sharks are solitary creatures that keep to themselves. It is known that thresher populations of the Indian Ocean are separated by depth and space according to sex. Some species however do occasionally hunt in a group of two or three contrary to their solitary nature. All species are noted for their highly migratory or oceanodromous habits. When hunting schooling fish, thresher sharks are known to "whip" the water. [12] The elongated tail is used to swat smaller fish, stunning them before feeding. [14] Thresher sharks are one of the few shark species known to jump fully out of the water, using their elongated tail to propel them out of the water, making turns like dolphins; this behavior is called breaching.


Two species of the thresher have been identified as having a modified circulatory system that acts as a counter-current heat exchanger, which allows them to retain metabolic heat. Mackerel sharks (family Lamnidae) have a similar homologous structure to this which is more extensively developed. This structure is a strip of red muscle along each of its flanks, which has a tight network of blood vessels that transfer metabolic heat inward towards the core of the shark, allowing it to maintain and regulate its body heat.


Bigeye thresher (A. superciliosus) embryos Alopias superciliosus embryos nefsc.jpg
Bigeye thresher (A. superciliosus) embryos

No distinct breeding season is observed by thresher sharks. Fertilization and embryonic development occur internally; this ovoviviparous or live-bearing mode of reproduction results in a small litter (usually two to four) of large well-developed pups, up to 150 cm (59 in) at birth in thintail threshers. The young fish exhaust their yolk sacs while still inside the mother, at which time they begin feasting on the mother's unfertilized eggs; this is known as oophagy.

Thresher sharks are slow to mature; males reach sexual maturity between seven and 13 years of age and females between eight and 14 years in bigeye threshers. They may live for 20 years or more.

In October 2013, the first picture of a thresher shark giving birth was taken off the coast of the Philippines. [15]


Thresher sharks are classified as prized game fish in the United States and South Africa.[ citation needed ] Common thresher sharks are the target of a popular recreational fishery off Baja, Mexico.


Because of their low fecundity, thresher sharks are highly vulnerable to overfishing.[ citation needed ] All three thresher shark species have been listed as vulnerable to extinction by the World Conservation Union since 2007 (IUCN). [2]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lamniformes</span> Order of sharks

The Lamniformes are an order of sharks commonly known as mackerel sharks. It includes some of the most familiar species of sharks, such as the great white, as well as more unusual representatives, such as the goblin shark and megamouth shark.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Silky shark</span> Species of fish

The silky shark, also known by numerous names such as blackspot shark, gray whaler shark, olive shark, ridgeback shark, sickle shark, sickle-shaped shark and sickle silk shark, is a species of requiem shark, in the family Carcharhinidae, named for the smooth texture of its skin. It is one of the most abundant sharks in the pelagic zone, and can be found around the world in tropical waters. Highly mobile and migratory, this shark is most often found over the edge of the continental shelf down to 50 m (164 ft). The silky shark has a slender, streamlined body and typically grows to a length of 2.5 m. It can be distinguished from other large requiem sharks by its relatively small first dorsal fin with a curving rear margin, its tiny second dorsal fin with a long free rear tip, and its long, sickle-shaped pectoral fins. It is a deep, metallic bronze-gray above and white below.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lamnidae</span> Family of sharks

The Lamnidae are the family of mackerel sharks known as white sharks. They are large, fast-swimming predatory fish found in oceans worldwide, though prefer environments with colder water. The name of the family is formed from the Greek word lamna, which means "fish of prey", and was derived from the Greek legendary creature, the Lamia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Porbeagle</span> Species of shark (Lamna nasus)

The porbeagle or porbeagle shark is a species of mackerel shark in the family Lamnidae, distributed widely in the cold and temperate marine waters of the North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere. In the North Pacific, its ecological equivalent is the closely related salmon shark (L. ditropis). It typically reaches 2.5 m (8.2 ft) in length and a weight of 135 kg (298 lb); North Atlantic sharks grow larger than Southern Hemisphere sharks and differ in coloration and aspects of life history. Gray above and white below, the porbeagle has a very stout midsection that tapers towards the long, pointed snout and the narrow base of the tail. It has large pectoral and first dorsal fins, tiny pelvic, second dorsal, and anal fins, and a crescent-shaped caudal fin. The most distinctive features of this species are its three-cusped teeth, the white blotch at the aft base of its first dorsal fin, and the two pairs of lateral keels on its tail.

<i>Cretoxyrhina</i> Extinct genus of shark

Cretoxyrhina is an extinct genus of large mackerel shark that lived about 107 to 73 million years ago during the late Albian to late Campanian of the Late Cretaceous. The type species, C. mantelli, is more commonly referred to as the Ginsu shark, first popularized in reference to the Ginsu knife, as its theoretical feeding mechanism is often compared with the "slicing and dicing" when one uses the knife. Cretoxyrhina is traditionally classified as the likely sole member of the family Cretoxyrhinidae but other taxonomic placements have been proposed, such as within the Alopiidae and Lamnidae.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bigeye thresher</span> Species of shark

The bigeye thresher is a species of thresher shark, family Alopiidae, found in temperate and tropical oceans worldwide. Like the other thresher sharks, nearly half its total length consists of the elongated upper lobe of the tail fin. Its common name comes from its enormous eyes, which are placed in keyhole-shaped sockets that allow them to be rotated upward. This species can also be distinguished by a pair of deep grooves on the top of its head, from which its scientific name is derived.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Common thresher</span> Species of shark

The common thresher, also known as Atlantic thresher, is the largest species of thresher shark, family Alopiidae, reaching some 6 m (20 ft) in length. About half of its length consists of the elongated upper lobe of its caudal fin. With a streamlined body, short pointed snout, and modestly sized eyes, the common thresher resembles the pelagic thresher. It can be distinguished from the latter species by the white of its belly extending in a band over the bases of its pectoral fins. The common thresher is distributed worldwide in tropical and temperate waters, though it prefers cooler temperatures. It can be found both close to shore and in the open ocean, from the surface to a depth of 550 m (1,800 ft). It is seasonally migratory and spends summers at lower latitudes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Longfin mako shark</span> Species of shark

The longfin mako shark is a species of mackerel shark in the family Lamnidae, with a probable worldwide distribution in temperate and tropical waters. An uncommon species, it is typically lumped together under the name "mako" with its better-known relative, the shortfin mako shark. The longfin mako is a pelagic species found in moderately deep water, having been reported to a depth of 220 m (720 ft). Growing to a maximum length of 4.3 m (14 ft), the slimmer build and long, broad pectoral fins of this shark suggest that it is a slower and less active swimmer than the shortfin mako.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Pelagic thresher</span> Species of shark

The pelagic thresher is a species of thresher shark, family Alopiidae; this group of sharks is characterized by the greatly elongated upper lobes of their caudal fins. The pelagic thresher occurs in the tropical and subtropical waters of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, usually far from shore, but occasionally entering coastal habitats. It is often confused with the common thresher, even in professional publications, but can be distinguished by the dark, rather than white, color over the bases of its pectoral fins. The smallest of the three thresher species, the pelagic thresher typically measures 3 m (10 ft) long.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Oophagy</span>

Oophagy or ovophagy, literally "egg eating", is the practice of embryos feeding on eggs produced by the ovary while still inside the mother's uterus. The word oophagy is formed from the classical Greek ᾠόν and classical Greek φᾱγεῖν. In contrast, adelphophagy is the cannibalism of a multi-celled embryo.

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The crocodile shark is a species of mackerel shark and the only extant member of the family Pseudocarchariidae. A specialized inhabitant of the mesopelagic zone, the crocodile shark can be found worldwide in tropical waters from the surface to a depth of 590 m (1,940 ft). It performs a diel vertical migration, staying below a depth of 200 m (660 ft) during the day and ascending into shallower water at night to feed. Typically measuring only 1 m (3.3 ft) in length, the crocodile shark is the smallest living mackerel shark. It can be distinguished by its elongated cigar-shaped body, extremely large eyes, and relatively small fins.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bigeye sand tiger</span> Species of shark

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<i>Isurus</i> Genus of sharks

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<i>Odontaspis</i> Genus of sharks

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Caudal luring</span> Form of aggressive mimicry where the predator attracts prey using its tail

Caudal luring is a form of aggressive mimicry characterized by the waving or wriggling of the predator's tail to attract prey. This movement attracts small animals who mistake the tail for a small worm or other small animal. When the animal approaches to prey on the worm-like tail, the predator will strike. This behavior has been recorded in snakes, sharks, and eels.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Memorandum of Understanding on the Conservation of Migratory Sharks</span>

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<span class="mw-page-title-main">Galeomorphii</span> Superorder of cartilaginous fishes

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The Republic of the Marshall Islands has a commercial fishery that targets bigeye and yellowfin tuna using pelagic longline fishing gear. There were 55 longline vessels licensed to fish in the Republic of the Marshall Islands Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in 2011, of which 4 were Marshall Islands-flagged and 51 were foreign-licensed vessels, including 22 Chinese-flagged, 16 Japanese-flagged, 11 Federated States of Micronesia-flagged, and 2 Taiwan-flagged. The Japanese-flagged longliners land their catch in Japan; the other 39 vessels were domestically-based. In 2011, the Marshall Islands longline fleet had reported landings of principal market species of 259 mt of bigeye tuna, 99 mt of yellowfin tuna, 37 mt of blue marlin, 7 mt of black marlin, 4 mt of albacore tuna, and 3 mt of broadbill swordfish. Fresh chilled bigeye and yellowfin tuna is exported primarily to markets in the U.S., China and Canada, and frozen tuna and incidental market species are exported to China and marketed locally.

<i>Alopias grandis</i> Giant, extinct thresher shark

Alopias grandis is a species of giant thresher shark from the Miocene. Estimates calculated from teeth comparisons suggest the living animal was comparable in size to the extant great white shark. Remains generally consist of teeth, which have been found in the United States in the Calvert Formation of Virginia and Maryland, and in Beaufort County, South Carolina. They have also been found in the Miocene of Malta. It is unlikely it possessed the elongated tail lobe of modern thresher sharks. Some specimens in the Burdigalian show the beginnings of serrations, which are presumably transitional individuals between A. grandis and A.palatasi.


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