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What are the biggest sharks?

PhD
Photo © Byron Dilkes

The biggest shark in the world is the whale shark

Whale sharks are not only the biggest shark in the world but are the biggest fish of any kind. (And while you’re reading, yes, sharks are fish, and yes, whale sharks are sharks and not whales.) Though there are some reports of larger individuals, the biggest specimen ever reliably measured was 18.8 metres or nearly 62 feet long! That’s bigger than a school bus!

Even though they’re enormous, whale sharks pose no danger to humans. Like the great whales, they eat only tiny plankton by filter-feeding, or ingesting huge volumes of water and filtering out the food. Whale sharks are found in warm waters all over the world and can migrate thousands of miles every year. They are, unfortunately, an Endangered species, according to the IUCN Red List.

The second biggest shark in the world is the basking shark

Like whale sharks, basking sharks are filter-feeders. While they don’t get quite as large as whale sharks, the largest one ever reliably measured was 12.27 metres or just over 40 feet long. This is enough to net them the title of the world’s second-largest shark. They typically live in cooler waters, but have been documented to cross the equator during their annual migrations. Basking sharks have also been known to ‘breach’, which means they propel themselves completely out of the water! Like whale sharks, they’re assessed as Endangered by the IUCN Red List.

Incidentally, there is one more known species of filter-feeding shark: the megamouth shark, a deepwater species. It has the coolest scientific name in the animal kingdom: Megachasma pelagios, ‘the giant mouth of the deep’. With a maximum known size of about 5.5 metres, or just over 18 feet, it’s still pretty big, even if it’s much smaller than a whale or basking shark.

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How big do great white sharks get?

The most famous shark species is the great white shark, the star of Jaws and Shark Week. While the whale shark and basking sharks are still predators (eating tiny animals is still eating animals), the white shark and its dramatic hunting of seals is often what people think of when they think about sharks as predators. So how big do great white sharks get? The largest reliably measured great white shark was just over seven metres long, or about 23 feet. Great white sharks are considered Vulnerable to extinction, but not Endangered, by the IUCN Red List

How big do some other famous shark species get?

What about some of the other shark species you know and love? Tiger sharks have been measured at over 7.4 metres, or 24 feet, though they very rarely get that big. Greenland sharks, the longest-lived vertebrate animals in the world, have been measured at 6.4 metres long, or just under 21 feet. Great hammerhead sharks can grow up to 6.1 metres, or 20 feet, though they are rarely seen anywhere near that size, and bull sharks can grow to a length of about 3.4 metres, or 11 feet. Sand tiger or ragged-tooth sharks can be 3.2 metres long.

Photo © Chris Vaughan-Jones
Photo © Chris Vaughan-Jones

How big are most species of sharks?

Some of the species of sharks mentioned in this article can be absolutely huge! However, it’s important to keep in mind that more than half of all known species of sharks are smaller than an adult human when fully grown. Sharks are an amazing group of animals and they come in a huge variety of shapes, sizes and colours, with behaviours and preferred habitats to match! To learn more about shark science and conservation, click here

Photo © Matthew During
Photo © Matthew During

The world’s top 10 biggest sharks:

  1. Whale shark: The biggest specimen ever reliably measured was 18.8 metres or nearly 62 feet long – that’s bigger than a school bus!
  2. Basking shark: While they don’t get quite as large as whale sharks, the largest basking shark ever reliably measured was 12.27 metres long, or just over 40 feet.
  3. Tiger Shark: Tiger sharks have been measured at over 7.4 metres, or 24 feet, though they very rarely get that big.
  4. White shark: The largest reliably measured great white shark was just over seven metres long – that’s about 23 feet.
  5. Greenland shark: The longest-lived vertebrate animals in the world have been measured at 6.4 metres, which is just under 21 feet long.
  6. Great hammerhead shark: Great hammerhead sharks can grow up to 6.1 metres, though they are rarely seen anywhere near that size.
  7. Megamouth shark: With a maximum known size of about 5.5 metres, megamouth sharks are still big, even if they’re much smaller than their other filter-feeding relatives.
  8. Bull Shark: Bull sharks can grow to be about 3.4 metres or 11 feet long.
  9. Sand tiger/ragged-toothed shark: Sand tiger or ragged-tooth sharks can reach a length of 3.2 metres.
  10. Thresher shark: Sporting possibly one of the longest tails in the shark family, which makes up half of their total body length! Thresher sharks can reach at least 5.7 metres.

References

David A. Ebert. et al, 2021, Sharks of the World: A Complete Guide.

W. T. White, 2012, A review of the taxonomy of chondrichthyan fishes: a modern perspective, Wiley online library.

Craig R. McClain. et al, 2015, Sizing ocean giants: patterns of intraspecific size variation in marine megafauna, Peer J.

C.A., Simpfendorfer, et al. Size, Sex And Geographic Variation in the Diet of the Tiger Shark, Galeocerdo Cuvier, From Western Australian Waters. SpringerLink.

Jessica L. Rudd. et al, 2021, High-resolution biologging of breaching by the world’s second-largest shark species, science reports.

Daniel Cressey, 2009, Basking sharks run for the sun, Nature.

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