Do Great White Sharks Have Social Hierarchies and Who Runs The Show?

Written by Nixza Gonzalez
Updated: November 20, 2023
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For decades, scientists have believed that great white sharks are solitary and aggressive animals, however, new studies and theories suggest otherwise. Although great whites aren’t as friendly as dolphins or orcas, they may still have a social hierarchy, one that changes a lot depending on the region. Are you curious about how great white sharks interact with each other? Follow along to discover if great white sharks have social hierarchies and if yes, who runs the show?

Do Great White Sharks Have Social Hierarchies?

Female great white sharks are larger than male great whites.

©Terry Goss / Creative Commons

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Although great white sharks are one of the most famous shark species, they are also one of the most mysterious. Experts are still trying to understand how great whites live their lives. It’s hard to track great whites because they tend to disappear and appear from great depths.

Great white social structures are complex and are still being studied. However, from what we know, some populations, like those in South Africa, have a dominance hierarchy depending on size and gender. Females are generally at a higher status than males. This may have to do more with their size than their gender. Generally, female great whites are larger than males and may grow up to 20 feet.

Also, great white sharks rarely fight. They’ve been observed and recorded passing and sometimes even swimming next to each other for several minutes without lashing out.

Do Great Whites Mate For Life?

An important part of whether great white sharks have social hierarchies is do great white sharks mate for life. While some shark species may mate with the same female every few years, no shark species are completely monogamous. This includes great white sharks.

Honestly, not a lot is known about how or where great white sharks mate/breed. Although the mating behaviors of great whites are still a mystery, it’s believed that they give birth every other year. Great whites likely have a gestation period of 12 months.

Are Great White Sharks Social?

While most people assume that great white sharks only swim, hunt, and sleep alone, new studies are showing us that this isn’t true. Great white sharks often interact with each other, sometimes for as long as seventy minutes!

According to one study, some great white sharks are more social than others. In this study, researchers tracked three male and three female great whites off Mexico’s Guadalupe Island using cameras and tracking systems. They discovered that one shark during the study spent time with at least 12 other sharks. However, another tagged shark only spent time with five sharks, but over a longer period. Interestingly, in most of the instances where the sharks encountered each other, they were near large groups of seals, a feeding ground.

Great White Shark Hunting Behavior

Under the waves circle two great white sharks. Illustration

Great white sharks cooperate with other sharks to hunt for food.

©solarseven/Shutterstock.com

Possibly the most interesting part of how great white sharks interact with each other is that most interactions center around hunting. Did you know that some great whites hunt in small groups or pairs?

Great white sharks will come together to use their strength and skills to hunt for food, and they share too! From what is known though, great whites are picky about who they allow to enter their short-term social groups. It’s a lot more common for great whites of the same gender, size, or age to hunt together.

Are There Social Sharks?

While great whites aren’t the most social shark species, a few shark species interact with each other more than others. For example, sand tiger sharks may form networks of up to 200 sharks that they interact with on and off for years. The same study suggested that some sand tiger sharks even have ‘best friends’ whom they encounter more than 20 times.

Sand tiger sharks, though, aren’t the only shark species to do this. Hammerhead sharks are considered one of the most social shark species. Scalloped hammerhead sharks, in particular, form large groups in multiple places around the world. These large groups, also called schools, can contain over 500 sharks! The structure of these groups though changes depending on the location. 

Great White Shark Facts

  • Great white sharks have a bite force of about 20 times stronger than humans.
  • They are the largest, live, predatory fish in the world.
  • Great whites are super fast swimmers, sometimes hitting 35 mph in short bursts.
  • A great white shark may weigh as much as 6,600 pounds.
  • Despite being feared, great white shark attacks are rare.
  • Great white sharks are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © iStock.com/vladoskan


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About the Author

Nixza Gonzalez is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics like travel, geography, plants, and marine animals. She has over six years of experience as a content writer and holds an Associate of Arts Degree. A resident of Florida, Nixza loves spending time outdoors exploring state parks and tending to her container garden.

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