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Mississippi’s Sharks and Rays

Filed Under:
Publication Number: P3650
View as PDF: P3650.pdf

An educational guide for Mississippi Aquarium

Cover image of shark swimming in Mississippi Aquarium.

Edited by Marcus Drymon, PhD1,2
Illustrations by Bryan Huerta-Beltran1
Species data compiled by Matthew Jargowsky1,2 and Emily Seubert1

1Mississippi State University Extension Service
2Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium

MASGP-21-016

Using This Guide

Marine Fisheries Ecology

The waters surrounding Mississippi are home to an exciting diversity of sharks, skates, and rays (collectively called elasmobranchs). We’ve developed this book to showcase a small portion of this diversity and highlight the sharks and rays you may see at Mississippi Aquarium. Below are a few things to keep in mind as you go through this book. First, we’ve included the common and Latin (or scientific) name for each species. Then, alongside each color illustration, we’ve shown an example of a single tooth from the upper jaw (sharks) or an entire set of jaws (rays). We’ve also described the average size at maturity (i.e., size at adulthood) and the maximum reported total length (for sharks) or disc width (“wingspan,” for rays) for Gulf of Mexico specimens. To best illustrate the maximum reported total length of each shark and the maximum reported disc width of each ray, we’ve displayed a silhouette of each species relative to a 6-foot-tall human. Finally, we’ve presented a color-coded “population status” graphic to indicate whether the current status of each population is good (green), fair (yellow), poor (red), or unknown (gray). To develop this graphic, we used data from NOAA Fisheries for populations in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, instead of the IUCN, which provides global population trends. While current as of 2021, it’s important to remember that the statuses of U.S. shark and ray populations are constantly changing (hopefully for the better!).

We hope this book increases your appreciation for the incredible diversity of sharks and rays off our coast. Enjoy!

Anatomy of a Shark

Parts of a shark.

Anatomy of a Ray

Parts of a ray.


Mississippi Aquarium Sharks

Nurse shark

Ginglymostoma cirratum

""

  1. Nasal barbels (slender, whisker-like sensory organs)
  2. Wide head, giving it a tadpole-like appearance
  3. First dorsal fin farther back on body

Current status of Nurse shark population is unknown.

Size: 6 ft 7 in (at maturity), 9 ft (max)

Habitat & Diet: Shallow coastal waters; feeds on fishes and invertebrates Interesting Fact: Coloration ranges from yellowish tan to dark brown

Sandbar shark

Carcharhinus plumbeus

""

  1. Snout shorter than mouth width
  2. Large first dorsal fin
  3. Interdorsal ridge

Current status of Sandbar shark population is fair.

Size: 6 ft (at maturity), 7 ft 8 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Coastal waters; feeds on small fishes

Interesting Fact: Undertakes long seasonal migrations

Sand tiger shark

Carcharias taurus

sand tiger shark.

  1. Sharp, jagged teeth
  2. First dorsal fin located far back on body
  3. Secondary dorsal fin nearly as large as first dorsal fin

Current status of Sand tiger shark population is unknown.

Size: 6 ft 7 in (at maturity), 9 ft 10 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Shallow water, often found near bottom; feeds on fishes Interesting Fact: Siblings eat each other in the womb (termed adelphophagy)


Common Mississippi Sharks

Atlantic sharpnose shark

Rhizoprionodon terraenovae

""

  1. Well-pronounced labial furrows (grooves around the mouth)
  2. White spots (adults only)
  3. Pre-anal ridges

Current status of Atlantic sharpnose shark population is unknown.

Size: 2 ft 6 in (at maturity), 3 ft 7 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Inshore and offshore; feeds on small fishes and invertebrates Interesting Fact: Most common coastal shark in the northern Gulf of Mexico

Blacknose shark

Carcharhinus acronotus

""

  1. Black-tipped nose
  2. Large eyes
  3. Copper color along body

Current status of Blacknose shark population is unknown.

Size: 3 ft 5 in (at maturity), 5 ft (max)

Habitat & Diet: Shallow, warm coastal waters; feeds on small fishes

Interesting Fact: Sometimes mistaken for a lemon shark because of its color

Blacktip shark

Carcharhinus limbatus

""

  1. Nose shorter than mouth width
  2. Stout body
  3. Black tips on all fins except anal fin

Current status of Blacktip shark population is good.

Size: 4 ft 8 in (at maturity), 6 ft 3 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Nearshore, subtropical coastal waters; feeds on fishes

Interesting Fact: Often seen with a species-specific parasite on dorsal region


Mississippi Apex Predators

Bull shark

Carcharhinus leucas

""

  1. Short, blunt snout
  2. Small eyes
  3. Stocky body

Current status of Blacktip shark population is good.

Size: 7 ft 5 in (at maturity), 9 ft 4 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Coastal waters, including freshwater; feeds on fishes, stingrays, and sharks

Interesting Fact: Juveniles prefer estuaries and rivers; adults inhabit saltwater

Tiger shark

Galeocerdo cuvier

""

  1. Short, blunt snout
  2. Dorsal surface covered with dark spots/bands
  3. Well developed caudal keel

Current status of Tiger shark population is unknown.

Size: 9 ft 10 in (at maturity), 15 ft (max)

Habitat & Diet: Subtropical and tropical waters; feeds on sea turtles, mammals, fishes, and sharks

Interesting Fact: Teeth distinctly curved and serrated for tearing through prey

Shortfin mako

Isurus oxyrinchus

""

  1. Conical snout
  2. Blue color along body
  3. Lunate tail

Current status of Shortfin mako population is poor.

Size: 6 ft 6 in (at maturity), 13 ft (max)

Habitat & Diet: Subtropical and tropical waters; feeds on fishes and squids

Interesting Fact: Considered the fastest shark in the ocean (nearly 40 mph)


Mississippi Hammerheads

Bonnethead

Sphyrna tiburo

""

  1. Flattened, shovel-shaped head
  2. Speckles on body
  3. Brownish or greenish-gray color

Current status of Bonnethead population is unknown.

Size: 2 ft 4 in (at maturity), 5 ft (max)

Habitat & Diet: Shallow inshore waters; feeds mostly on small invertebrates

Interesting Fact: Teeth are specially modified molars for consuming crabs

Scalloped hammerhead

Sphyrna lewini

""

  1. Notches near eyes on head (cephalofoil)
  2. Pelvic fins with straight rear margins
  3. Long and low secondary dorsal fin

Current status of Scalloped hammerhead population is poor.

Size: 6 ft 7 in (at maturity), 11 ft 6 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Coastal and oceanic waters; feeds on stingrays, fishes, and small sharks

Interesting Fact: Sometimes swim on their sides

Great hammerhead

Sphyrna mokarran

""

  1. Nearly straight head (cephalofoil)
  2. Extremely high, curved (i.e., falcate) first dorsal fin
  3. Pelvic fins with curved rear margins

Current status of Great hammerhead population is poor.

Size: 10 ft (at maturity), 16 ft (max)

Habitat & Diet: Shallow coastal waters; feeds on stingrays, smaller sharks, and fishes

Interesting Fact: The largest hammerhead species in the world


Mississippi Deepwater Sharks

Gulper shark

Centrophorus granulosus

""

  1. Green eyes
  2. Spines on each dorsal fin
  3. No anal fin

Current status of Gulper shark population is unknown.

Size: 3 ft 2 in (at maturity), 4 ft 6 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Deep waters; feeds on small fishes and squids

Interesting Fact: Large, broad, leaf-like scales (known as dermal denticles)

Sharpnose sevengill shark

Heptranchias perlo

""

  1. Narrow, tapering snout
  2. Seven gill slits
  3. Only one dorsal fin, located far back on body

Current status of Sharpnose sevengill shark population is unknown.

Size: 2 ft 10 in (at maturity), 3 ft 8 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Deep, subtropical and warm waters; feeds on squids and small fishes

Interesting Fact: Most shark species have five gill slits, but this species has seven

Goblin shark

Mitsukurina owstoni

""

  1. Long, blade-like snout
  2. Jaws that can extend outward for prey capture
  3. Long caudal fin that lacks a lower lobe

Current status of Goblin Shark population is unknown.

Size: Size at maturity unknown; estimates suggest 16 ft as max size

Habitat & Diet: Deep waters; feeds on fishes, squids, and crustaceans

Interesting Fact: Monotypic (the only species in its family)


Mississippi Aquarium Rays

Cownose ray

Rhinoptera bonasus

""

  1. Wide head
  2. Fleshy “cephalic” lobes used for prey capture
  3. One to two stings at base of tail

Current status of Cownose ray population is unknown.

Size: 2 ft 1 in (at maturity), 3 ft 11 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Shallow coastal waters; feeds on bivalves, crustaceans, and marine worms

Interesting Fact: Seasonally migrates in schools of up to 10,000 in the Gulf

Atlantic stingray

Hypanus sabinus

""

  1. Pointed snout
  2. Well developed pelvic fins
  3. Row of small thorns

Current status of Atlantic Stingray population is unknown.

Size: 10 in (at maturity), 2 ft (max)

Habitat & Diet: Coastal waters, including freshwater; feeds on small invertebrates and fishes

Interesting Fact: Only U.S. shark/ray with permanent freshwater populations (Florida)

Southern stingray

Hypanus americanus

""

  1. Diamond-shaped body
  2. Well developed ventral tail fold
  3. Poorly developed dorsal tail fold

Current status of Southern Stingray population is unknown.

Size: 2 ft 6 in (at maturity), 5 ft (max)

Habitat & Diet: Nearshore and coastal waters; feeds on crustaceans and fishes

Interesting Fact: Tourists often swim with this species when visiting the Caribbean


Other Mississippi Rays

Bluntnose stingray

Hypanus say

""

  1. Blunt snout
  2. Well developed ventral tail fold
  3. Well developed dorsal tail fold

Current status of Bluntnose ray population is unknown.

Size: 1 ft 7 in (at maturity), 2 ft 7 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Shallow coastal waters; feeds on crustaceans and fishes

Interesting Fact: Frequently has up to three stings

Smooth butterfly ray

Gymnura lessae

""

  1. Wide pectoral fins
  2. No sting
  3. Short tail

Current status of Smooth butterfly ray population is unknown.

Size: 1 ft 7 in (at maturity), 4 ft (max)

Habitat & Diet: Coastal waters; feeds on fishes

Interesting Fact: Ambush predator that uses its pectoral fins to strike and stun fish prey

Lesser electric ray

Narcine bancroftii

""

  1. Kidney-shaped electric organs
  2. Dark ring-like markings
  3. Two tall dorsal fins

Current status of Lesser electric ray population is unknown.

Size: 11 in (at maturity), 2 ft 1 in (max)

Habitat & Diet: Shallow coastal waters; feeds on marine worms

Interesting Fact: Can generate up to 56 volts of electricity, which it uses for defense


Conservation and Management

The individuals included in this guide are only a portion of the diverse shark and ray species that live off the Mississippi coast. In spite of their many sizes, shapes, and colors, most sharks and rays share a similar set of biological characteristics that include slow growth, late age at maturity, and long lifespan. Unfortunately, these “life history” characteristics mean that once depleted, it can be difficult for shark and ray populations to recover.

Overharvest, habitat loss, and pollution are some of the threats currently facing sharks and rays. Collecting baseline life history data is the first step toward managing and conserving these species. Fortunately, Mississippi Aquarium has partnered with researchers at Mississippi State University to help fill some of the data gaps for local sharks and rays. Research partnerships like this one are critical to ensuring the future sustainability of the sharks and rays that call Mississippi home.

Mississippi Aquarium

Mississippi State University Extension

Sea Grant

This guide was funded in part by Mississippi Aquarium.

Publication 3650 (06-21)

Copyright 2021 by Mississippi State University. All rights reserved. This publication may be copied and distributed without alteration for nonprofit educational purposes provided that credit is given to the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Department: Coastal Research & Extension Center
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