Why Rosie O’Donnell was Wrong to Kill a Hammerhead: The Top 5 Coolest Things About These Strange-Looking Sharks

18 July 2014 by Amy McDermott, posted in Conservation, Sharks

Great Hammerhead in Bimini, Bahamas. Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/zjYzy

In 2012, Rosie O’Donnell killed an endangered hammerhead shark for sport, and then mocked the conservationists outraged by her actions.

Now, the controversy has resurfaced, with O’Donnell chosen to replace previous co-host Jenny McCarthy on the popular television talk show The View. O’Donnell is an influential public figure, yet still openly refuses to apologize for killing an endangered species. Is this the kind of person we want spreading her opinions on TV?

Last Friday, Slate published an article by David Shiffman– a shark biologist and conservationist at the University of Miami– openly condemning The View’s choice to hire O’Donnell. A second article followed on Southern Fried Science, fleshing out some of the questions surrounding the controversy.

But what we haven’t heard is why hammerheads are worth saving, and why O’Donnell’s choice to hunt and kill these strange looking sharks is so fundamentally uncool. Here are the top 5 reasons I find hammerheads so deeply rad:

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Mean muggin'– hammerheads have a face made for hunting. Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/zjYrn

 

1. That Crazy Face

Hammerhead sharks are weird looking. Their bodies and fins are familiar, but the head is a strange, laterally flattened shape. Research suggests that this unusual head functions like an underwater wing. It’s rudder-like shape increases agility, making hammerheads more maneuverable swimmers than other sharks. They are able to make stunningly tight turns while hunting, and to hit and restrain prey with their uniquely wide heads.

There are also sensory advantages to a wing-shaped head. Hammerheads can pick up a gradient of odors along the width of their face, and can smell a broad area of the seafloor when hunting for fish buried in the sand. Their faces are also lined with pores that are sensitive to electric fields, so hammerheads can literally feel the electricity generated by their prey.

 

2. System Regulators

Sharks are apex predators, regulating the food chain from the very top. When hammerheads and other shark species are removed from the ocean, the food chain is disrupted, and their prey populations can explode, often with negative economic consequences for people.

For example, between 1986 and 2000 alone, hammerhead populations fell by 89% along the Eastern Seaboard. Simultaneously, their prey populations (especially the populations of some species of ray) exploded.

Cownose rays in particular, became more common as hammerheads disappeared. These rays migrate annually along the east coast, eating clams and scallops as they go. As their numbers increased, the commercial harvest of scallops and clams began to fall, and by 2004, North Carolina’s bay scallop fishery had collapsed entirely.

Hammerheads were critical regulators of cownose ray populations– a connection people didn’t see until it was too late. As the sharks disappeared, their prey wreaked unforeseen havoc, serving as an important reminder that protecting sharks means protecting human livelihoods too.

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A school of hammerheads on the move, Galapagos. Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/zjYGl

 

3. Massive Migrations

Hammerheads migrate huge distances, moving in large groups (called “schools”).

But for at least one species, the scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna Lewini), males and females lead vastly different lives.

Female scalloped hammerheads are likely to keep to coastlines, and may even stay (or return to) their place of birth to breed. Males, on the other hand, are long distance migrators, able to travel in excess of 900 miles at a stretch, crossing oceans in epic journeys around the world.

 

4. Sharks Just Like Us

Like us, hammerhead sharks give birth to live babies, called pups. And like us, female hammerheads are pregnant for between 8 and 10 months. Pups are born in shallow coastal nurseries, where they can stay for up to 5 years before braving the wide and dangerous world.

 

5. The Case of the Virgin Birth

In 2001, a captive female hammerhead shark (Sphyrna tiburo), kept in a tank without males, gave birth to a single female pup. Genetic analysis revealed the pup to be a clone of its mother, developing from an unfertilized egg into a baby shark.

This kind of cloning (known as parthenogenesis) is a type of asexual reproduction documented in bony fishes, amphibians, reptiles, and birds, but previously unknown in cartilaginous fishes like sharks (and still undocumented in mammals).

While most hammerheads reproduce sexually, this case provides the first evidence of direct development of an embryo from an unfertilized egg in any shark species.

Beautiful and on the brink. Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/zjYdo

Beautiful and on the brink. Shutterstock: http://ow.ly/zjYdo

 

In summary, hammerhead sharks are incredible. They are fascinating animals, important for ocean health and for human well-being. It’s wrong to hunt sharks, and to kill any endangered species. And that's why Rosie O’Donnell was seriously out of line.


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