This particular soapbox has been in the making since I first watched Jaws as a child. As much as I loved the movie (and trust me, I did!), even at that young age, I was frustrated by the scientific inaccuracies and the subsequent impact of the movie on the public’s attitudes toward sharks. Numerous articles and essays have been written on the impacts Jaws on beach-going and violence against sharks. According to this article, surveys have identified the movie (not the potential presence of actual sharks, just the movie Jaws) as the primary reason for avoiding ocean swimming in 80% of respondents.
Though many people fear them, shark attacks are surprisingly rare. Since the year 1580 AD, only 484 fatal shark attacks have occurred worldwide (see data here). This averages out to less than 6 people per year killed in a shark attack (and less than one per year in the United States). You are more likely to be killed by a cow than by a shark. In fact, you are more likely to be killed by any one of eleven other animals than a shark (and we won’t even talk about how much more likely you are to be killed by a fellow human). Many sharks are surprisingly gentle. The whale shark, the basking shark, and the megamouth shark are all plankton-eaters (and so pose no threat to humans), and have even been known to play with divers. Though meat-eaters, zebra sharks are also quite gentle.
The fear surrounding policy discussions of how to handle shark attacks has led some researchers to request a more accurate code for reporting shark-human encounters. Under current terminology, even the sighting of a shark can be called an ‘attack,’ greatly over-estimating the seriousness of the encounter and the prevalence of true attacks on humans.
Anyway, the soapbox occurs when the public misconstrues the portrayal of top predators in entertainment media as truth. Movies need not be scientifically accurate, but people must learn to distinguish entertainment from fact. While shark attacks do occur, and are sometimes fatal, sharks are not maniacal killing machines bent on human destruction. Attacks are often a case of mistaken identity – human swimmers (especially surfers) are mistaken by the shark for a tasty seal. Even so, nearly 40 years after the release of Jaws, the occasional shark attack is often followed by legally sanctioned slaughter of any sharks in the region. Currently, 100 of the 450 shark species are at high risk for extinction. For many species, this is due to overfishing for shark fin soup and other shark products (not just fear-based killing). Regardless of the reason, sharks cannot survive sustained hunting pressure.
This leads to my more general comments about the portrayal of top predators (not just sharks) in popular movies. Jaws is by far the most famous and influential example, but many others exist.
Anaconda, for example, similarly exaggerated the hunting capabilities of anaconda snakes. My personal favorite example of this is the opening scene, which says that anacondas will regurgitate their food so they can ‘hunt and kill again.’ Anacondas WILL regurgitate food, but it’s so they don’t get food poisoning. Anacondas are actually capable of eating animals that are so large they cannot be digested by the snake before it begins to decompose in the snake’s intestines and thus must be regurgitated before making the snake ill. There are some rather disgusting You Tube videos of this occurring, if you’re curious. Also, while anacondas are very efficient hunters in water, on land they are hindered by their massive size and move sluggishly – a far cry from the lightning-speed strikes shown in the movie. Fortunately for anacondas, the Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube combination was not quite as powerful as Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws, and anacondas have not received the fear and hatred that overshadows white sharks.
A major underpinning of my soapbox is the importance of top predators in ecosystems. Removing (extinction) or severely limiting (endangering) top predators can have disastrous cascading effects on the food web. In the Midwest, hunting of wolves and coyotes has led to an explosion of deer, which in turn put added herbivory pressure on the plant community and result in increased highway accidents. Pop culture is drawn to top predators as they are often iconic and charismatic species. Unfortunately, characterizing these groups as methodical human hunters overlooks their importance in the ecosystem and serves only to engender fear of them in the public, which in turn threatens the very survival of the species.
Note: for an awesome counter example to this problem, check out The Ghost and the Darkness (1996) starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas and mostly accurately documenting the ravages of two man-eating lions near Tsavo, Kenya in 1898. The only real inaccuracies here are that Michael Douglas’s character didn’t actually exist (which is unfortunate, because he’s pretty hilarious, aside from the ‘going native’ motif), and that neither of the lions had manes despite both being adult males. I would argue the main reason this movie is mostly historically accurate is that these lions were anomalous in their preference for human flesh – poetic license wasn’t needed because the actual truth was crazy weird. You could still argue that emphasizing these sorts of anomalous human-predator interactions still contributes to an unnecessary fear of them. Although, fearing lions is probably generally warranted. You can see the lions themselves at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, or in a photo to the left. They ate somewhere around 35 people, though some accounts argue they killed 135 (it’s unclear if this was an exaggeration, or if perhaps they killed many they did not eat). Anyway, the point is, they were creepy weird, and kind of awesome, and one of the few examples of top predators actually stalking humans.