A Biologist Looks at JAWS

I’m enjoying the new Blu-ray disc of Jaws (1975).  There’s a scene where ichthyologist Matt Hooper examines the remains of “boating accident” victim Chrissie Watkins.  He’s wearing a head set and recording notes as he is performing an autopsy.  He zips out some dialogue about the “non frenzied feeding of a large squalus” and goes on to remark that the culprit might be [phonetically – I don’t have script at hand] “ON-GI-MY-MUS or possibly O-SIR-US GLAW-CUS”.  

As a biologist, that scientific diatribe has always bothered me, even as an inquisitive youngster, as I have never once ever heard of these sharks. What the hell was Hooper talking about?  After all these years I think I got it figured out.  I pulled José Castro’s informative The Shark of North American Waters (Texas A&M Press, 1983) and looked up some latin names. Nothing really stood out.  Well, maybe I got the spelling wrong, so I narrowed down some possibilities:

  • Genus Isurus.  Bingo! Mako Sharks.  Range: In North America it ranges from California in the Pacific to the Grand Banks in the Atlantic southward to the tropics… It is very common in offshore waters from Cape Co to Cape Hatteras.  Isurus paucusLongfin Mako. Range:  Tropical Pacific Ocean and the western North Atlantic from Georges Bank to the Gulf of Mexico. Common in the Gulf Stream waters from the northern coast of Cuba to Florida. Relation to Man: It is fished off Cuba for animal feed and feed meal.   [Not much of a man-eater Hooper].
  • Charcharhinus longimanus.  Oceanic Whitetip Shark.  Range: Circumtropical.  Warm deep waters of the Gulf Stream and rare off the west coast.  Relation to Man:  The species is considered dangerous to man.  [That’s the closest I can get to ON-GI-MY-MUS].

So, I’m thinking Hooper was effectively saying “so this is what happens… indicating the non-frenzied feeding of either the Oceanic Whitetip or possibly the Longfin Mako…” which makes no sense at all as neither fish is a top 10 man-eater or common off the northeastern Atlantic coast and neither shark is a Squaliform. Makos are Mackeral Sharks and Whitetip Oceanics are Requiem Sharks.  Squalus is the large genus of dogfish sharks.  These are the sharks college students dissect in comparative vertebrate anatomy. I liked it when salty Quint puts Hooper in his place and comments that the college boy isn’t educated enough to admit when he is wrong.  Actually Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb are to blame regarding the inaccurate taxonomy and habits of sharks depicted in Jaws.

There’s some curious dialogue coming from Brody’s mouth too.  He’s at home in his study flipping through a book showing sharks and he comments to his wife Ellen about people not even knowing how long shark live and that “they live two three thousand years…” What?  Did he just say that?  I have run that line back 50 times on VHS, laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray.  Yes he said that and it’s wrong.   [George Lucas would’ve re-looped the dialogue already]. I’m not sure where that came from.  Sharks are indeed an ancient group of fishes as depicted in the fossil record, but to state they live 3,000 years is ridiculous.  What lives that long?  Bristle cone pine trees, various yews and fig trees, some corals and various colonial organisms and stands of trees.  Japanese Koi have lived over 200 years.

I like Hooper’s comments on the Tiger shark being “like a garbage can.” He wasn’t far off as Tiger sharks will eat about anything, including inanimate objects and pieces of metal.  Here’s an interesting paper on TIGER SHARK HABITS.  I also like how Hooper remarks that the Tiger shark is a man-eater and is extremely rare for New England waters.  Which is correct. Maybe he knows more about Tiger sharks than Makos and Whitetip Oceanics?

What about the giant shark launching out of the water and landing on Quint’s vessel Orca?  Actually I think Steven Spielberg took liberties with this dramatic shot, but he may have been ahead of the game here.   Check out some of these modern occurrences of Great Whites leaping from the water.

Jaws the film still holds up well and is arguably my favorite movie.  Some of the science is off —we now know so much more about the behavior and conservation of these fascinating creatures.  Later in his life Peter Benchley (who made a boat-load of money off his pulp fiction story) worked hard on the conservation of sharks and particularly Carcharodon carcharias.  He commented later in life that he regretted the erroneous perceptions that Jaws caused.  As a kid I was worried (or at least gave it second thoughts) about swimming in Lake Michigan.  Now that is a film with cultural impact.

Here’s a link on long lived organisms (take info on Wikipedia with a grain of salt):


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