Bull Shark Facts

The bulls shark (Carcharhinus leucas) is considered by many to be the most dangerous shark to humans on the planet. So why does it not have quite such a notorious rep as its cousins, the more great white and tiger sharks? Well, read on and we might just be able to change your minds.

Common nameBull shark Bull shark
Scientific nameCarcharhinus leucas
SizeMax: 11.5 feet (3.5 m)
Ave: 7.8 feet (2.4 m)
WeightOver 500 pounds (230 kg)
Attacks104 attacks in last 150 years. 33 fatalities
Deadly rating Deadly rating 4

Bull Shark bite size facts

  • Bull sharks get their name primarily from their short, rounded snout. Most sharks in this family have pointed noses – in fact Carcharhinus means sharp nosed.
    The name also refers to their pugnacious nature and a tendency to head-butt their prey as a prelude to attacking.
  • Also known as: Zambezi shark, Van Rooyen’s shark, Nicaragua shark, river shark, Ganges shark, ground shark, shovelnose, square-nose, Swan river whaler, freshwater whaler, swan river whaler,cub shark or slipway grey.
  • Bull sharks are in the same family as great white sharks, tiger sharks and oceanic white tips. This is the Carcharhinidae family or Requiem sharks and these sharks are responsible for nearly all the unprovoked attacks on humans.
  • The Bull shark is responsible for the 3rd most attacks on humans. According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) these sharks are most likely to be involved in attacks after great white sharks and tiger sharks. There have been 104 recorded bull shark attacks in the past 150 years of which a third were fatal. It is also thought that these figures are under-reported as many attacks occur in the third world and are not filed.
  • The bull shark is considered the most dangerous shark in the world by many experts. This is because unlike other potentially dangerous sharks the bull shark is only found in shallow waters. And this is exactly where they are likely to come across humans, including at some of the world’s best known beaches.
  • It is widely thought that the shark attacks that inspired the Jaws movies may have been down to a bull shark. The infamous Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916 left four dead and one injured. Whilst there were no further attacks after an 8ft (2.5m) great white shark was caught in the vicinity some experts do not believe this was the culprit. The reason is one of the attacks, in Matawan Creek, was a considerable distance from the sea and freshwater. Great Whites are not known to enter freshwater whereas bull sharks are often found in rivers and lakes.
  • Bull sharks have the highest recorded bite force for their size amongst all shark species measured. 

Video: Scientist Eric Ritter joins Roboshark in the water with some ferocious looking Bull Sharks.

Bull shark habitat and distribution

  • Bull sharks are common throughout the warm waters of the world.
    Bull shark range
    They have been seen as far north as Massachusetts on the US Atlantic coast and as far south as Brazil. Whilst less often seen in the colder Pacific regions they are found from Baja, California down to Ecuador.
    Bullsharks are also found in many parts of the Indian Ocean including much of Africa, Western India and from Vietnam to Australia.
  • These sharks are generally found in water less than 100ft (30m) deep.
  • Bull sharks are one of the only sharks that readily live in freshwater. All sharks need to retain a certain amount of salt in their bodies and bullsharks have special adaptations to allow them to do this even when in fresh water.
    Bull sharks have been reported as far inland as 2220 miles (3700 km) up the Amazon River in Peru and more than 1800 miles (3000km) up the Mississippi River in Illinois. In Africa they are also known as the Zambezi shark as they frequent this river, whereas in India they are sometimes called Ganges sharks.
    There is also an established population in Lake Nicaragua which was at one time thought to be landlocked. However, it seems the sharks are able to navigate various rivers, including some rapids, to gain access to the lake. Over the years there have been a number of attacks (some fatal) in the lake.
  • Bull sharks were seen swimming in flooded streets in and around Brisbane, Australia during the 2010 floods.
  • There are rumours of bull sharks living in the Mediterranean Sea, but no firm evidence.
  • Despite stories of bull sharks in Lake Michigan it seems very unlikely. Whilst there is a canal between the Mississippi, where they have been found, and Lake Michigan, it has many obstacles such as locks which the sharks would be unable to navigate.
  • South American bull sharks migrate about 2,300 miles (3700 km) up and down the Amazon River seasonally.

Bull shark anatomy

Bull shark diagram

  • Bulls are recognisable by their stocky build and blunt snout. They are proportionately shorter and wider than other requiem sharks.
  • The shark’s back is light to dark grey and the underbelly white. Young sharks may have dark colored tips to their fins.
  • The largest specimen recorded was 13 feet (4m), although this is not well verified. Sharks measuring up to 11 feet (3.5m) are commonly reported.
  • The heaviest recorded bull shark was 694 lb (315kg)
  • Bull sharks do not have an interdorsal ridge. This is the ridge that runs between the front and rear dorsal fins on the back of the shark. Other sharks do have this.
  • Bull sharks have smaller eyes than many other requiem sharks. It is thought they are more reliant on hunting by scent in murky coastal waters.
  • Teeth are wide and triangular reaching 1.5 ins (4 cm) in length. They are heavily serrated along the sides – ideal for slicing and tearing flesh.
    Bull shark teeth
  • Females have a longer lifespan than males. They can live for about 16 years, compared to 12 years for males. This explains the larger size of fully grown females.
  • Young sharks are born after an 11 months pregnancy. The mother give birth to live, free-swimming young (viviparous) and there is little care after birth.

What do bull Sharks eat?

  • Bull sharks are considered to be apex predators. That means nothing habitually preys on bull sharks although they are known to be attacked and eaten by other large sharks on rare occasions and there are even cases of saltwater crocodiles killing bull sharks.
  • Bull sharks will eat anything! They are opportunistic hunters – they will try to eat anything they come across rather than looking for specific prey. Whilst their diet is generally made up of fish they are known to even eat stingrays and other sharks including small individuals of their own species. Less commonly bull sharks have been known to eat sea turtles, dolphins, crabs, sea birds, squid, dogs and even the odd race horse – not to mention humans.
Dead bull shark

The bull sharks greatest predator is man. Whilst not targeted by commercial fisheries these sharks are popular with sports fisherman. They can be caught anywhere, even off the beach. But be prepared for a long, long struggle to reel one in. And if you manage, be very careful indeed.

Bull shark attacks

The bull shark is sometimes referred to as the pit bull of the sea due to its highly aggressive nature when attacking. It is the shark’s habitat and range which make it more likely to come into contact with humans than any other shark. Many attacks have occurred in rivers and lakes making the attacker much easier to identify due to the brackish / freshwater environment.

The table below documents many of the fatal attacks recorded by the Global Shark Attack File (GSAF) over the last 150 years:

25-Nov-1880AUSTRALIAQueenslandPetrie Bight, Brisbane RiverSwimmingAlexey DruryM12Feet bitten, surgically amputated FATALBull shark
16-Jan-1960AUSTRALIANew South WalesJust below Roseville Bridge, opposite Killarney picnic reserve, Middle Harbor, SydneyFree divingKenneth William MurrayM13FATAL, right leg severed above knee, surgically amputated but died 9 days laterBull shark
28-Jan-1963AUSTRALIANew South WalesSugarloaf Bay, Middle Harbour,WadingMarcia HathawayF32FATAL, right femoral artery severed, thigh, calf, buttock & left hand bittenTooth fragments of “whaler” shark were recovered, a bull shark, according to Edwards
16-Dec-2002AUSTRALIAQueenslandMiami LakeSwimmingBeau MartinM23FATALBull shark
08-Feb-2003AUSTRALIAQueenslandBurleigh Lake on the Gold CoastSwimmingBob PurcellM84FATALThought to involve a >2 m [6.75′] bull shark
11-Dec-2004AUSTRALIAQueenslandOpal ReefSpearfishingMark ThompsonM38FATAL, leg bittenBull shark
07-Jan-2006AUSTRALIAQueenslandAmity Point, North Stradbroke IslandSwimmingSarah WhileyF21FATALBull shark
08-Apr-2008AUSTRALIANew South WalesLighthouse Beach, BallinaBody boardingPeter EdmondsM16FATALBull shark
24-Feb-2008BAHAMASNorthern BahamasDive site known as “The End of the Map”DivingMarkus GrohM49Leg bitten, FATALA bull shark, according to some of the divers on the boat
14-Oct-2002BRAZILPernambucoPiedade Beach, Jaboatão dos Guararapes City, RecifeSwimmingLuiz Soares de ArrudaM36FATAL, body not recoveredPossibly a bull shark or tiger shark
10-Jul-2006BRAZILPernambucoBody recovered at GoianaUnidentifiedMFATALBull or tiger shark
1954IRANKarun RiverHesamabad area of Shushtar, 420 km from the seaMr. Kasem JasemMFATALBull shark suspected due to freshwater habitat
1954IRANKarun RiverA village a short distance from HesamabadgirlFFATALBull shark suspected due to freshwater habitat
1985IRANRamin, near AhvazFishingmaleMFATALBull shark
1941-1942IRAQBasrahShatt-el Arab River near a small boat standSwimmingmaleM14FATAL, left leg bitten with severe blood lossBull shark
Before 1957NICARAGUALake Nicaragua (fresh water)A village north of San CarlosLashing logs together when he fell into the wateran IndianMFATAL, leg severedBull shark caught, leg recovered & buried beside the man’s body
17-Jun-1938NICARAGUALower San Juan RiverThe schooner Elizabeth, bound from Bluefields, Nicaragua to the river port of San Carlos founderedElena Hodgson & Isaac OllisFATAL x 2, all other passengers & crew reached shore after a long swimThought to involve bull sharks
28-Jun-1992REUNIONSt PaulCap de la MarianneSurfingFATALBull shark or lemon shark
15-Apr-1994REUNIONSt. JosephLieu-dit CayenneFATAL3 m [10′], 200-kg [441-lb] bull shark
09-Jul-1994REUNIONSt. DenisBarachoisWindsurfingmaleM24FATAL3 to 3.5 m [10′ to 11.5′] bull shark
03-Jan-1997REUNIONla Pointe-au-SelSpearfishingmaleMFATALBull shark
03-Jan-1999REUNIONSaint LeuPointe au SelSpearfishingFATAL3 bull sharks
01-Aug-2005SeychellesInner IslandsOff North IslandFishingRolly LesperanceMFATAL, shark involvement prior to death is unconfirmedBull shark
10-Apr-1933USAFloridaMiami BeachSwimmingThomas N. MartinM24FATALPossibly a bull shark or tiger shark
13-Sep-1988USAFloridaShell Island Panama City Beach , Bay CountySnorkelingJohn P. MartinM38FATAL, thigh & hand lacerated3 m [10′] bull shark
13-Sep-1995USAFloridaAlligator Reef, off Islamorada, Monroe CountyScuba divingWilliam CovertM25Presumed FATAL, body not recovered3 m to 3.7 m [10′ to 12′] bull shark
30-Aug-2000USAFloridaBoca Ciega Bay, Tampa, Pinellas CountyJumped into the waterThaddeus KubinskiM69FATALThought to involve a 2.7 m [9′], 400-lb bull shark
01-Sep-2001USAVirginiaSandbridge Beach, Princess Anne CountySwimmingDavid PeltierM10FATAL, thigh bittenbull shark
25-Jun-2005USAFloridaDestin, Walton CountySwimming with boogie boardJamie Marie DaigleF14FATAL, leg bitten1.8 m [6′] bull shark