Are There Sharks in the Mississippi River?

Written by Taiwo Victor
Updated: July 19, 2023
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The Mississippi River holds a plethora of secrets beneath its surface. Refrigerators, vehicles, and even bodies have been discovered in the depths of The Big Muddy. The Mississippi River is one of the longest rivers in the United States, and it goes directly into the Gulf of Mexico, where it mixes with saltwater and freshwater.

As a result, some saltwater species take refuge in freshwater, notably the Mississippi River. But among these species is something wild — bull sharks. Could there really be bull sharks in the Mississippi River?

Sharks are ocean-dwelling saltwater predators. But, it turns out that one particular shark species, the bull shark, prefers to swim outside the box—right into the Mississippi River’s freshwater. That’s precisely what researchers Ryan Shell and Nicholas Gardner discovered.

To better comprehend the behaviors of these fascinating beasts, the two combed through hundreds of bull shark reports and studies.

According to their findings, it was confirmed that bull sharks can travel more than 1,000 miles up the Mississippi River! This article will explore the stories about bull sharks in the Mississippi River, their diet, and other fascinating facts.

Are There Any Sharks in the Mississippi River?

Bull shark facts - mouth of a bull shark

At least two bull shark sightings have been documented in the Mississippi River.

©Willyam Bradberry/

The short answer is yes. Over the last century, researchers have documented at least two bull shark sightings in the Mississippi River. One in Alton, Illinois, in 1937 and another in Saint Louis, Missouri, near Rush Island Power Station in 1995; both are exceptionally rare.

Alton, Illinois, is the farthest inland that a bull shark has ever been observed in North America. Alton is located 15 miles north of St. Louis on the Mississippi River and 1,750 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. In 1937, two commercial fishermen noticed that their mesh traps were being looted regularly by a huge predator.

As a response, the anglers constructed a sturdy wire trap and baited it with chicken guts to catch the musky that was allegedly tormenting their setups. Instead, they got a 5-foot bull shark weighing more than 80 pounds.

The shark was treated like a celebrity in the community, drawing people to the Calhoun Fish Market for days. The men were photographed in town, and their picture is probably the most essential aspect of this narrative. Without it, most people would simply dismiss the story as another example of fishermen exaggerating. Other observations of bull sharks in unusual places lack the same level of evidence.

The second sighting occurred in 1995 near the Rush Island Power Station in Festus, just south of St. Louis. A shark was discovered stuck in a grate this time.

Is It Normal for Bull Sharks to Live in Lakes?


Bull sharks will occasionally travel into freshwater in search of food.

©Willyam Bradberry/

The answer to the question of whether it is normal for bull sharks to live in lakes is more complicated than a simple yes or no. While it is not typical, there are some instances where bull sharks have been spotted in freshwater sources such as lakes and rivers. This usually happens when they become trapped after swimming into the area through an opening connecting to saltwater.

Bull sharks can survive in freshwater due to their special ability called osmoregulation, which allows them to adjust their internal salt balance so that they can still breathe and function properly even if the surrounding water has different levels of salinity than what they are used to. The most famous example of this happening was at Lake Nicaragua, where several bull sharks were found living among its waters!

Over the last century, researchers have documented at least two bull shark sightings in the Mississippi River.

Bull Shark Habitat

Bull shark swimming over sandy seafloor.

Bull sharks prefer warm tropical water.

©Carlos Grillo/

Bull sharks are widely distributed in tropical and subtropical waters around the world and can be found in coastal regions of all oceans. They spend most of their time living in shallow waters near river mouths, estuaries, mangrove swamps, coral reefs, and lagoons.

They will rarely travel into freshwater lakes to follow food. They have also been known to travel far upriver into brackish water habitats. There have even been cases where bull sharks have been observed swimming thousands of miles upstream into the Amazon River in search of fresh fish! Bull sharks prefer warm water temperatures between 72°F and 82°F, but they are able to tolerate colder temperatures for short periods as well.


bull sharks

Bull sharks can live for around 16 years in the wild.

©Martin Prochazkacz/

Bull sharks have a lifespan of about 16 years in the wild. However, they can live longer in captivity, with some bull sharks having been known to reach up to 30 years old. Bull sharks are generally considered to be relatively long-lived compared to other species of shark. In addition, due to their ability to adapt and survive in a variety of different environments, bull sharks often face fewer threats from predators than other types of shark species. This factor contributes significantly towards the extended lifespans of this impressive creature.

What Does a Bull Shark Look Like? 

Bull shark facts - a bull shark swimming

Bull sharks, unlike most sharks, have more needle-like teeth, which help them bite and grip their food.


The bull shark derives its name from the fact that it looks like a bull. It has a short, wide snout and a huge, hefty body. In addition, this shark resembles a reef shark, although it is much larger.

Female bull sharks can reach up to 11 feet long and weigh 500 pounds, yet they are not as large as great white sharks. Bull sharks are gray on top, with black-tipped fins that fade over time. When viewed from below, their white bellies help them blend in with the sunlight on the water’s surface.

What makes them much more menacing is their set of teeth. Bull sharks, unlike most sharks, have more needle-like teeth, which help them bite and grip their food before devouring them whole. These beasts have the strongest bite force of any cartilaginous fish studied, measuring up to approximately 6,000 newtons.

Bull sharks are frequently confused with great white sharks. This is understandable because unless you are a shark expert, you will most likely mistake them for one another in terms of physical appearance. Aside from physical distinctions such as size, snout form, life span, and speed, bull sharks are more likely the inspiration for the renowned shark film Jaws.

The featured sharks must have been bull sharks that live in the same places as the sharks in the movie because they attack shallow, coastal waters. On the other hand, great white sharks only swim in open waters.

 What Do Bull Sharks Eat?

What Do Bull Sharks Eat
Bull sharks eat fish, dolphins, and sea turtles.

While bull sharks have been known to eat plants and algae, meat makes up the vast majority of their diet. Fish, sea turtles, sea birds, stingrays, dolphins, and other shark species are all possible prey to these frightening predators.

Bull sharks have been reported to attack their victims with a bump-and-bite tactic. They continue to attack and tackle prey after the initial encounter until the target cannot flee. The bull shark is a solitary hunter, yet it may form a temporary alliance with another bull shark to make hunting and prey manipulation easier.

Sharks are opportunistic feeders, and the bull shark, which belongs to the Carcharhinus family, is no exception. Sharks normally eat in quick spurts, but they digest for considerably longer periods to avoid going hungry when food is scarce.

Bull sharks will regurgitate the food in their stomachs to prevent a predator as part of their survival mechanism. This is a decoy approach; if the predator attempts to eat the regurgitated food, the bull shark can take advantage of the opportunity to escape.

Are Bull Sharks Dangerous?

Bull shark facts - bull shark with human

Contrary to the Hollywood view, shark attacks are very rare.


Bull sharks are the third most aggressive and dangerous sharks on the planet, not to mention massive, and possess great jaw strength. They are historically grouped with their more well-known cousins, great white and tiger sharks, as the three shark species are most prone to attack people.

Because they favor shallow coastal water and tend to move up rivers, they frequently come into contact with humans. However, shark attacks are extremely rare.

Contrary to popular notions, bull sharks do not actively hunt humans. As scientists understand more about these strange creatures, shark attacks on people are usually the result of misidentification. Swimmers are frequently attacked in shallow, muddy waters with poor visibility.

Because bull sharks have small eyes and poor vision, the murky water makes it even more difficult to see what they’re pursuing. As a result, bull sharks prefer to hunt in places with plenty of prey.

Bullshark vs. Tiger Shark: What Is the Difference?

Tiger sharks are bigger than bull sharks by a few feet and have sharper teeth.

When looking at the two species, several physical differences can help to distinguish between a tiger shark and a bull shark. One of the most noticeable is their size. Tiger sharks tend to be much larger than bull sharks, reaching lengths of up to 16 feet compared to just 11 feet for bull sharks. Additionally, the shape of their heads differs. Tiger sharks have angular heads with sharply pointed snouts, while bull sharks possess more rounded snouts, which gives them an almost hammerhead-like appearance.

Furthermore, they also differ in coloration. Tiger sharks generally have dark stripes on either side of their body that become less prominent as they age, whereas adult bull sharks typically lack any patterning or striping across their body. Finally, if you look closely at the teeth of both species, you will notice that those belonging to a tiger shark tend to be longer and sharper than those found in a bull shark’s mouth. All these differences make it relatively easy for someone with basic knowledge about these animals to tell them apart!

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Martin Prochazkacz/

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About the Author

For six years, I have worked as a professional writer and editor for books, blogs, and websites, with a particular focus on animals, tech, and finance. When I'm not working, I enjoy playing video games with friends.

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