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Sharks Prefer Cheeseburger-Sized Bites Rather Than Huge Mouthfuls

First Posted: Feb 24, 2016 07:24 AM EST

While sharks are often characterized as being terrors of the deep, they aren't nearly as fearsome as their reputation states. Scientists have found that reef sharks prefer prey that's bite-sized-which is about as small as a cheeseburger.

In this latest study, the researchers wanted to see what sharks were eating over long periods of time on a reef. They analyzed shark body tissue, and also pumped a shark's stomach.

"We were surprised to find a broad range of small prey items such as fish, molluscs, sea snakes, crabs and more often than not, nothing at all," said Ashley Frisch, one of the researchers, in a news release. "These results suggest that reef sharks eat small meals infrequently and opportunistically."

Although black-tip, white-tip and grey reef sharks are often thought of as top predators, the sharks seem to prefer eating smaller fish rather than ones that are similar sizes to them, or bigger than them. In fact, the researchers found that the chemical structure of the sharks' body tissue closely matched that of large reef fish such as groupers, snappers and emperors.

"This result tells us that reef sharks and large fishes have a similar diet, but they don't eat each other," said Frisch. "So rather than eating big fish, reef sharks are eating like big fish."

The findings are important when it comes to preserving sharks. Currently, coral reefs around the world are in decline, and sharks are also suffering by being caught both intentionally and unintentionally as bycatch. Understanding the role sharks play in coral reef ecosystems is crucial for conservation efforts.

The findings are published in the journal Coral Reefs.

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