Tiger Sharks Are Drawn to the Chaos of Hurricanes, Study Finds

In contrast to other species, tiger sharks revel in the chaos caused by hurricanes, according to a new study published in the online edition of the journal Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science on May 1.

One of the ocean's foremost predators, the sharks take their name from their distinctive patterning. While neither as massive as great whites nor as alarming in appearance as hammerheads, they are responsible for a significant percentage of the attacks and deaths recorded annually, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.

A diver swins with a blacktip shark.
A diver swims with a blacktip reef shark. Researchers recently published a study that shows tiger sharks respond differently to hurricanes than most other sharks. MICHELE SPATARI/Getty Images

The study found tiger sharks are attracted to, rather than repelled, by the turbulent weather conditions the massive storms create. Many marine animals, including dolphins, flee at the first sign of high seas and strong winds, but tiger sharks stick around, according to The Scientist.

This aspect of their behavior has been a source of fascination to the study authors since 2017. During a research expedition in September of that year, study author Neil Hammerschlag and colleagues noted nurse sharks, bull sharks, and hammerhead sharks responded differently to the arrival of Hurricane Irma in Miami than tiger sharks had to the arrival of Hurricane Matthew in the Bahamas 11 months before. The nine nurse sharks, three bull sharks and seven hammerhead sharks the researchers were tracking fled the area before Irma hit, but the 12 tiger sharks remained even as Matthew battered the ocean floor. In fact, tiger shark detections doubled in the days and weeks immediately following the hurricane.

"I was amazed to see that big tiger sharks didn't evacuate even as the eye of the hurricane was bearing down on them. It was as if they didn't even flinch," Hammerschlag said, according to a University of Miami press release.

While the researchers haven't officially identified a cause, they speculate tiger sharks, which eat almost anything that crosses their path, may seize the opportunity to feed on carrion.

They "were probably taking advantage of all the new scavenging opportunities from dead animals that were churned up in the storm," Hammerschlag told The Scientist, adding the sharks will dine on everything from "sea birds to sea turtles to dolphins to fish to other sharks."

Their bulk may also enable them to ride out hurricanes safely, Hammerschlag said. Both tigers and hammerheads can reach a similar maximum length. However, tigers outweigh hammerheads by a significant margin, making them more physically sturdy.

"They're built like tanks," Hammerschlag told WUSF Public Media. "They're robust, they're strong, and they don't get stressed out. If they're not getting too stressed out, then why flee? Why evacuate if it's going to take energy and time?"

The results of the study potentially forecast changes in shark behavior in the future because climate change is expected to spawn more hurricane activity.