If you were to ask an average person to differentiate between a tiger shark, Great White, whale shark, bull shark or mako, most could probably do so, or would at least be aware that such varieties existed. This wasn’t always the case.
A mere six hundred years ago, sharks were known only by the bizarre personas recounted by animated sailors. And even when more accurate depictions and accounts began to circulate, the world was completely ignorant of the vast diversity of these creatures.
A shark, generally, was a shark. It took an army of people, and several hundred years, to even begin to comprehend these magnificent fish, and we’ve still only scraped the surface.
The Shark in Myth
Eleven hundred years ago, man was just starting to venture boldly into the open oceans. At that time, and throughout the Middle Ages, the sea was a place of mysticism and superstition, with countless tales of leviathans, monsters, and spirits plaguing the waters.
Researchers believe many of these tales were actually based on real creatures, however exaggerated. Some of the beasts may have been at least partially informed by shark sightings.
The Ziphius. Conrad Gessner. 1560. Icones Animalium. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
Conrad Gessner depicted the Ziphius in his 1560 work Icones Animalium. Many researchers believe the beast with the back fin may be a Great White, due in part to the unfortunate seal in its jaws. The porcupine-fish taking a bite out of the Ziphius’ side?
The jury’s still out on that one…
Despite limited contact with sharks, or perhaps because of it, artists generally portrayed the fish as ravenous man-eaters. Olaus Magnus’ 1539 Carta Marina shows a hapless man besieged by a gang of sharks.
Fortunately for him, a kind-hearted ray-like creature has come to the rescue.
Also in the Middle Ages, fossilized shark teeth were identified as petrified dragon tongues, called glossopetrae. If ground into a powder and consumed, these were said to be an antidote for a variety of poisons.
The Shark as a Sea Dog
By the time of the Renaissance, the existence of sharks was more generally known, though their diversity was woefully underestimated. Only those species that were clearly distinct based on color, size, and shape—such as hammerheads, blue sharks, and smaller sharks such as dogfish—were distinguished. As for the Lamnidae—Great Whites, makos, and porbeagles—these were identified as a single species.
In the 1550s, we see the Great White debut to an audience that would remain captivated by it for hundreds of years, though under a rather strange moniker.
Canis carcharias. Pierre Belon. 1553. De aquatilibus duo. (Biodiversity Heritage Library)
In 1553, Pierre Belon, a French naturalist, published De aquatilibus duo, cum eiconibus ad vivam ipsorum effigiem quoad ejus fieri potuit, ad amplissimumcardinalem Castilioneum.
Belon attempted the first comparative analysis of sharks, and presented 110 species of fish in a much more realistic light than previously provided. In addition to a hammerhead,
Belon included a woodcut of a shark he named Canis carcharias.
Some readers may recognise that “Canis” is the genus currently assigned to dogs. Belon was not attempting to classify sharks with dogs by asserting this name. Indeed, systematic classification based on ranked hierarchies would not come onto the scene for over two hundred years.
The common practice at this time was to choose descriptive names based on physical characteristics. Colloquial speech referred to sharks as “sea dogs,” and carcharias comes from the Greek “Carcharos” (ragged), which Belon associated with the appearance of the shark’s teeth.