The Gentle-Natured Nurse Shark

Nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum) are a species of shark found commonly in shallow waters and coral reefs. These slow-moving, bottom-dwelling carnivores are found along the coasts of North America, South America, and western Africa, and call both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans home.

Nurse shark off of Tobacco Caye in Belize
Nurse shark off of Tobacco Caye in Belize. Photo by Tobacco Caye Marine Station

Nurse sharks are distinguished by their flat bodies, yellow-brown coloration, and large size, with individuals reaching up to 10 feet (3 meters) and over 300 lbs (136 kg). Despite their size, nurse sharks pose little threat to humans. They are suction feeders, meaning that a nurse shark will prowl along the sea floor in search of their prey- usually crustaceans, squid, and bottom-dwelling fish- and then suddenly suck the unlucky prey into its mouth and swallow it whole. Though rare, nurse sharks can fall prey to other, larger shark species, including bull sharks, tiger sharks, and hammerheads. 

Though they occasionally make daytime appearances, nurse sharks are largely nocturnal. During the day, nurse sharks huddle together in groups consisting of several dozen individuals. Like many other shark species, nurse sharks give birth to live young, with litters of up to 20-25 pups. Nurse sharks can live in their wild habitats for over 20 years. 

A nurse shark investigating a lionfish container near the Tobacco Caye Marine Station
A nurse shark investigating a lionfish container near the Tobacco Caye Marine Station. Photo by Tobacco Caye Marine Station

Nurse Sharks in Belize

Nurse sharks are found throughout the Caribbean and Central America, including off the coasts of Belize. With shallow, warm coastal waters and plentiful coral reefs, Belize is a valuable home to nurse sharks and the prey species on which they depend, and hosts an estimated population of between 4,000 and over 14,000 individual sharks. [source]

Unlike many other shark species, nurse sharks do not migrate, meaning they can be found in Belize year-round. During colder weather, nurse sharks simply become less active to conserve energy. They are a rare, exciting sight to divers, snorkelers, and swimmers exploring Belize’s reefs, and are largely non-aggressive to humans unless provoked. 

Marine biologists from Tobacco Caye Marine Station teaching about nurse sharks
Marine biologists from Tobacco Caye Marine Station teaching about nurse sharks. Photo by Tobacco Caye Marine Station.

However, despite their non-threatening nature towards humans, nurse sharks can be harmed by humans in return. Nurse sharks are rarely direct targets of fishing or hunting in Belize, but are impacted by overfishing and destruction of their habitats. Marine sanctuaries and the work of those dedicated to protecting Belize’s waters provide a positive counterbalance to the threats faced by nurse sharks.

One such area is the Belize Barrier Reef Reserve System (BBRRS). Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996, BBRRS protects large areas of the Belize Barrier Reef, the largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere and the second-largest in the world. Like other reefs worldwide, the Belize Barrier Reef and the species living within face constant threats of pollution, invasive species, and climate change. As conservationists push for- and, in the case of Belize’s 2017 limits on offshore oil drilling, win- increased protections for the reef, organizations such as the Tobacco Caye Marine Station dedicate themselves to hosting and educating scientists and students in marine conservation. In fact, Belize has emerged as a leader in conservation, recognizing the importance of the reefs not only to the species within them but to the country’s people as well. 

To learn more about Belize’s coral reefs and the species that call them home, schedule a tour with us at Marine Biology Live!

To Learn More:

Tobacco Caye Marine Station

Article by Kayla Windelspecht. : Kayla is a biologist and science writer specializing in ecology and conservation. She is a graduate from North Carolina State University and project manager for Inspire EdVentures since 2020.

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