When you think of sharks, do you think of ferocious sea predators like the great white or the hammerhead? If so, then you may not know there are more than 400 species of sharks swimming the waters of the world, and the majority of them are completely harmless to humans.
The Indianapolis Zoo is home to a species of shark that isn’t quite as Jaws-like in nature. The smooth dogfish shark is just one of the 70 species of dogfish sharks and the Indianapolis Zoo was the first to breed them. Though the species’ conservation status is listed as “near threatened,” the Zoo is hoping to turn around that trend through its breeding program. Read more in the blog post, "Making Little Sharks."
Smooth dogfish sharks (mustelus canis) may be a sea predator, but they’re far from the top of the food chain. In the wild, they will eat large crustaceans and at the Zoo their diet consists of shrimp, lobster, squid, herring and a variety of other small fish. However, in the wild, they would also be the prey for other shark species, including dusky, blacktip and hammerhead.
Female smooth dogfish sharks (averaging 4-5 feet long, 8-15 pounds) tend to be larger than males (averaging 2.5-3.5 feet long, 5-12 pounds) and have longer life spans (16-20 years for females, 10-15 years for males). Unlike most other species, dogfish sharks prefer shallower waters of less than 60 feet deep.
Among the smooth dogfish shark’s unique characteristics is an interesting behavior known as tail-walking. When these sharks are excited or scared, they will stick their heads up out of the water. Similarly, they will stick their bodies out of the water in a behavior known as porpoising. Another interesting behavior is their ability to change color from light to dark brownish gray to help them blend into their environment.
You can see these behaviors displayed each day in the Zoo’s Oceans Exhibit, which includes the nation’s largest shark touch tank in the Firestone Gallery. Here, you have the opportunity see and interact with this smaller shark species. And if you’re planning to visit, here are a few tips to enhance your experience.
We encourage — yes, encourage — guests to pet our sharks. Splashing will scare the sharks, so try to be calm and put your hand slowly into the water so the sharks don’t swim away. Also, their fins and tails are sensitive, so use just two fingers and pet the sharks on their sides from dorsal fin to tail. Just stick to these easy tips and you’ll have a safe and fun shark encounter!