Great white shark washes up on beach, then provides rare opportunity for UNCW marine biologists

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A great white shark washed up on Wrightsville Beach Monday and was examined at UNCW on Tuesday. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
A great white shark washed up on Wrightsville Beach Monday and was examined at UNCW on Tuesday. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

A crowd gathered at UNCW’s Oriole Burevitch Laboratory Tuesday afternoon to admire a specimen rarely seen outside its natural habitat and horror movies: a great white shark, one of the world’s most feared predators.

The shark, which was found washed up on the beach by Crystal Pier near Oceanic Restaurant in Wrightsville Beach Monday, was taken to UNCW, where marine biology professors and students examined the animal. The procedure was led by associate professor Dr. Thomas E. Lankford, an ichthyologist, and marine mammal research associate William McLellan, who’s in charge of the university’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program. According to their metrics, the female shark was 10.89 feet long and weighed 687.84 pounds. They did not yet know the age or maturity of the shark. A NOAA fact sheet given by the lab states females are believed to be mature when they reach 13 to 14 feet in length, and some sharks can grow up to 21 feet long.

Great whites, the world’s largest predatory fish, are listed as a “vulnerable” species, according to the World Wildlife Organization. They are a rare sight for humans, and scientists estimate there are only about 3,000 swimming in the Atlantic Ocean. Though many of them are tagged and tracked by groups like OCEARCH (it is unclear whether this particular shark was tagged), research on the species is still limited, and local scientists are hoping to take advantage of one washing up in their own backyard.

“This permits us the opportunity to learn about a poorly understood and threatened species,” said Dr. Ann Pabst, a professor of marine mammalogy at UNCW. “This is a very rare opportunity for our students.”

According to Pabst, the shark was brought to UNCW, which is known for its marine biology program, because they have the capability of responding to stranded animals. The university will be working with its partners up and down the coast and sharing the information gathered from the great white.

A crowd gathered to watch the necropsy. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
Many people were involved in the necropsy of the large animal. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

Dozens of students stood around the lab to watch the necropsy despite the strong smell of dead flesh that permeated the area. Though some stood back and simply observed, the more senior and experienced students donned coveralls, galoshes and gloves and got hands-on with the animal. A strip of the shark’s teeth was removed, along with its tail and fin. The tail was cut into bottom and lower halves to reveal the inner muscles and bone structure of the powerful body part, which helps the creatures navigate the ocean’s strong currents. The predator’s massive internal organs (the liver took up nearly half of the examining table) were removed and placed in bins. Curious bystanders watched the process with excitement and amazement at the chance to see such a specimen up close.

“There are more students today than can directly participate,” said Pabst, noting that student involvement, even during finals week, was paramount with such a rare research opportunity. “We’re the coastal university in our system, and it’s a great benefit for our students. We feel lucky to be in this area.”

The professors would not yet speculate on a cause of death for the animal and said they would not rush the process of the necropsy. While Lankford, McLellan and a group of students were working on the main body of the shark, others in the marine biology department were cutting up samples of the animal’s rough, thick skin and muscle and putting them in containers for further examination later.

“They want to get as much data and as many samples as possible, and that takes time,” said Pabst, who said Lankford and McLellan could send out the basics of their necropsy within a few days. “We still know very little about them, so anything we can learn is valuable.”

The ocean predators were in the news earlier this summer when a series of shark bites occurred off Oak Island and Ocean Isle Beach in June. The three victims, all teenagers, survived, and it was unclear what kind of sharks were involved in the attacks.

Great White Shark Great White Shark 2 Removing teeth from a great white shark Bill McLellan and Tom Lankford performing great white shark necropsy Bill McLellan cutting into the great white shark Great white shark necropsy 2 Great white shark necropsy Procedure plan for great white shark necropsy Samples of shark's muscle and skin are cut up Cutting samples and recording data from great white shark Part of the tail of a great white shark Crowd outside lab for shark necropsy