Carcharhinus brachyurusBronze(Also: Shark)

Geographic Range

Copper sharks (Carcharhinus brachyurus) are found along temperate coastlines and oceanic waters in both northern and southern hemispheres. They inhabit nine disjunct coastal regions. One region spans from Baja California southward to Peru. Another region spans along the southern coast of Australia and all of New Zealand. Two separate regions in South America include one on the coast of Peru and another along the entire length of Argentina. In Africa, there are three distinct regions: South Africa, northwestern Africa, and the coast of northern Africa. They also inhabit waters along the coast of Japan. The coastline of Spain has a disjunct group of copper sharks as well. Copper sharks inhabit the warm waters of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans and the Mediterranean Sea, which are common areas for nurseries.

More specific migration patterns have been found throughout the geographic ranges of copper sharks. From October to late March they are found along the coast of Argentina. Along Anegada Bay, females outnumber males throughout the months of January, February, March, and migrate by April. From September to May, they occupy the waters along New South Wales, Australia, with large populations in February and April. Copper sharks also occupy the coastal temperate waters of New Zealand during the summer. In colder months, they typically inhabit warm, temperate waters in the southwestern Atlantic Ocean. KwaZulu-Natal's coast, in South Africa, provides warm waters in which copper sharks appear in large numbers during the winter. (Baker, et al., 2008; Benavides, et al., 2011; Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Ebert, et al., 2013; Irigoyen and Trobbiani, 2016; Zava, et al., 2006)

Habitat

Temperate waters of coastlines and continental shelves are common habitats for copper sharks. Continental shelves provide a nutrient-rich environment for copper sharks. In these waters, they inhabit the supratidal and neritic areas of the pelagic zone, in depths as shallow as 10 m. Although they typically reach maximum depths of 100 m, some may travel deeper. Copper sharks are uncommonly documented in brackish freshwater systems in the shallower depths of estuarine bays and large rivers. Adolescent copper sharks appear year-round at depths less than 30 m. Habitats for adults and younger adults vary during the year, and include shelves, banks, and offshore islands.

Copper shark habitats vary by season and by sex. In the summer, copper sharks are found at higher latitudes in response to the temperature of the water. In the winter, females and juveniles migrate to subtropical regions while males migrate to higher latitudes in late winter until spring. It is common for adult males to inhabit subtropical regions throughout the year. (Baker, et al., 2008; Benavides, 2010; Da Silva and Burgener, 2007; Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Ebert, et al., 2013; Irigoyen and Trobbiani, 2016; Lucifora, et al., 2005; Zava, et al., 2006)

  • Range depth
    10 to 100 m
    32.81 to 328.08 ft
  • Average depth
    100 m
    328.08 ft

Physical Description

Like other sharks, copper sharks are ectothermic. At birth, copper sharks measure approximately 60 to 70 cm long. By maturity, males are 200 to 240 cm long and females are 215 to 223 cm long. These sharks have a maximum recorded length of 294 cm. The only published weight is 304.6 kg, recorded by IFGA (2001) as a maximum weight.

The dorsal side of copper sharks is a bronze/brown color or bronze/grey color, with a white banded flank, and white on their ventral side. Their snouts are long and narrow with a rounded or pointed tip. Their pectoral fins are long, and their dorsal fins are small and spineless, with posterior-facing tips. Their eyes are located on either side of the head. Besides the darker edges surrounding the fins, there are no clearly identifiable markings on the fins. It is uncommon for copper sharks to have an interdorsal ridge.

Copper sharks have upper teeth ranging from 29 to 35 mm with hooked bent cusps. Their lower teeth are 29 to 33 mm. Morey and Massuti (2003) examined a 220 cm female copper shark from the Balearic Islands - the western part of the Mediterranean Sea. Their upper jaws measured 390 mm and their lower jaws measured 320 mm. The horizontal opening was 197 mm and the vertical opening was 144 mm. Their upper teeth are mainly cusped. Compared to their upper teeth, their lower teeth are narrower and not as skewed as their upper teeth. (Benavides, 2010; Compagno and Niem, 1998; "Database of IFGA angling records until 2001", 2001; Ebert, et al., 2013; Lucifora, et al., 2005; Morey and Massuti, 2003; Venkataraman, et al., 2003; Zava, et al., 2006)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • Range mass
    304.6 (high) kg
    670.93 (high) lb
  • Range length
    200 to 294 cm
    78.74 to 115.75 in

Development

Copper sharks increase steadily in size until they reach the age of maturity. They are viviparous and give birth to litters of pups that are large in size. Newborns are measured at approximately 60 to 70 cm in length. Lucifora et al. (2005) found that males were deemed sexually mature if they developed calcified claspers that were rotated forward. Mature males range from 181 to 255 cm in length. Mature females possess yolk-filled oocytes, large oviducal glands, and widened uteri. Their total length at maturity can range from 191 to 247 cm. ("A preliminary evaluation of the status of shark species", 1999; Da Silva and Burgener, 2007; Garcia, et al., 2008; Lucifora, et al., 2005; "Review of the fishery status for whaler sharks (Carcharhinus spp.) in south australian and adjacent waters", 2008)

Reproduction

Both males and females migrate to temperate regions, most likely offshore, to mate via internal fertilization. Male sharks bite females to begin mating. On the posterior side of their pelvic fins, males have intromittent organs known as claspers. Intromittent organs are specialized external male organs used to deliver sperm. During copulation, these claspers allow the male to insert semen into the oviducts of females. Due to the vast geographical distributions and populations of copper sharks, they most likely have more than one mate throughout their lifetime. No data have been collected on how they interact after mating. Females give birth every two years, and their gestation period is typically 12 months. (Benavides, 2010; Da Silva and Burgener, 2007; Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Ebert, et al., 2013; Irigoyen and Trobbiani, 2016; Lucifora, et al., 2005; "Review of the fishery status for whaler sharks (Carcharhinus spp.) in south australian and adjacent waters", 2008; Smith and Heemstra, 1986; Soest, 2016)

Copper sharks exhibit late-age maturity, long reproductive cycles, and specific regions for breeding and nursing. Male and female copper sharks swim to higher latitudes of their geographical range to breed in temperate waters during spring. Copper sharks follow the same trend as other large sharks in the family Carcharhinidae, in that the reproduce every other year. Their maturity age and length are approximately the same across their geographic distributions. Females reach sexual maturity at 20 years old (sometimes as early as 15 years old). Males are sexually mature from 13 to 19 years old.

Females can give birth to litter sizes from 7 up to 24. They are viviparous and have a gestation period of approximately 12 months. Although weights have not been reported, newborn lengths average 60 cm. However, this average length varies considerably across populations. Along South Africa’s Eastern Cape, the smallest free-swimming copper sharks were 58.5 cm long. In the southwest Atlantic Ocean region, the smallest free-swimmers were greater than 60 cm long. The lengths at birth found in a southwest Indian Ocean population were approximately 74 cm. There have been no data collected about the time in which it takes for neonates to become independent. However, other Carcharhinids have been found to become independent immediately after birth. (Benavides, 2010; Da Silva and Burgener, 2007; Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Ebert, et al., 2013; Garcia, et al., 2008; Hussey, et al., 2010; Irigoyen and Trobbiani, 2016; Lucifora, et al., 2005; "Review of the fishery status for whaler sharks (Carcharhinus spp.) in south australian and adjacent waters", 2008; Smith and Heemstra, 1986; Soest, 2016)

  • Breeding interval
    Copper sharks give birth every other year.
  • Breeding season
    Breeding occurs during spring in temperate waters at high latitudes.
  • Range number of offspring
    7 to 24
  • Average gestation period
    12 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    15 to 20 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    13 to 19 years

After females carry their litters for 12 months, they give birth in select nursing areas within the their geographic range. Like other members of the Carcharhinidae family, it can be assumed that mothers do not provide any type of parental care and newborns immediately swim away after birth, quickly learning to become independent. Beyond the act of mating, males provide no parental care. (Benavides, 2010; Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Ebert, et al., 2013; Hussey, et al., 2010)

Lifespan/Longevity

Copper sharks normally live up to around 30 years old and have a maximum lifespan of 34.5 years old in the wild. Copper sharks are fished commercially, which may cause limitations to their natural lifespan. No data have been collected for captivity longevity and the rate of age-dependent mortality. (Ebert, et al., 2013; Garcia, et al., 2008)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    34.5 (high) years
  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    30 years

Behavior

As copper sharks grow, their diets shift to larger prey. They are able to consume prey larger than their mouth by cutting the prey into pieces. Although copper sharks are seasonally migratory across their range, adjacent populations barely interact. Within one population, however, they can be seen alone or in schools. During the spring and summer, schools of up to 100 individuals can be sighted along New Zealand and Australia. In the winter, along South Africa, some schools rush in during the sardine run. Copper sharks travel along continental coastlines for long distances. Their activity during particular times of day is unknown.

Nursery areas for copper sharks are widely dispersed. They can be located in shallow waters or the open coast. Copper sharks that inhabit the waters around South Africa tend to have nursery areas at higher latitudes, including the Mediterranean coast of Morocco, temperate Cape waters, and central Namibian waters. In the southwest Atlantic region, coastal waters of Bahia Blanca to Bahia San Blas serve as nutrient-rich nursery areas for copper sharks. There have been sightings in New Zealand of pregnant females and newborns further south on the western coast in the Waimea Inlet, as well as in Hawke Bay on the east coast. Neonate and juvenile sightings in Australia have been reported in Albany, Port Lincoln, the upper Gulf St. Vincent, Robe, and Port Phillip Bay. More juveniles have been reported along California, Brazil, Peru, Sea of Japan, and along the West Alboran Basin, which is in between the coasts of Spain and Morocco. (Baker, et al., 2008; Benavides, 2010; Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Ebert, et al., 2013; Irigoyen and Trobbiani, 2016; Lucifora, et al., 2009; Lucifora, et al., 2005; Morey and Massuti, 2003; "Review of the fishery status for whaler sharks (Carcharhinus spp.) in south australian and adjacent waters", 2008; Smith and Heemstra, 1986)

Home Range

Copper sharks are not restricted to a particular home range. They also do not defend a territory. (Baker, et al., 2008; Benavides, 2010; Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Ebert, et al., 2013; Irigoyen and Trobbiani, 2016; Lucifora, et al., 2009; Lucifora, et al., 2005; Morey and Massuti, 2003; "Review of the fishery status for whaler sharks (Carcharhinus spp.) in south australian and adjacent waters", 2008; Smith and Heemstra, 1986)

Communication and Perception

Copper sharks require good visual perception for their predatory habits. Their vision allows them to catch swift-moving pelagic teleosts. Their lateral line system is the same system used by other fish to detect movements and vibrations in the water. Specifically, they use electric signals to detect prey (or other objects) and localization. They do this using electrosensory pores that are spread equally on the dorsal and ventral sides of the shark. Because these pores are abundant and evenly distributed, copper sharks are able to locate the specific position of their prey in any direction. These receptors allow sharks to detect and capture prey.

The three main vertebrate sensory systems of the head distinguish behaviors and are linked through different parts of the brain. These three sensory systems include olfactory, visual, and octavolateral. The forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain are neural structures that obtain signals from these sensory systems. The mesencephalon, or midbrain, of copper sharks is an average size, which gives evidence that vision is the main sense they use to detect prey. The motor function of the mesencephalon is specific to the movements of eyes. In older sharks, optic tecta - the main visual processors - decrease. When this happens, other senses have greater influence over vision. The olfactory lobes of copper sharks allow them to identify smells and pheromones, which helps them identify prey and potential mates. (Kajiura, et al., 2010; Lucifora, et al., 2009)

Food Habits

Copper sharks have a carnivorous diet of bony fishes. Copper sharks over 200 cm long prey on large elasmobranchs, such as sharks and stingrays as well as small schooling fish. They feed on benthic fish and pelagic fish. Their pelagic diet includes, salmon (genus Salmo) and sardines (Sardinops sagax). Cephalopods, including a variety of squids, also are included in their diets.

The ability of copper sharks to consume chondrichthyans depends on the size of the shark. Smale (1991) investigated diets on the Eastern Cape Coast of South Africa and found the variety of prey consumed by sharks differed by shark size. Diets for copper sharks less than 2 m long included squids (Loligo vulgaris reynaudii), cuttlefish (genus Sepia), sardines (Sardinops sagax), cape horse mackerel (Trachurus capensis), other fish from the Clupeidae family, and teleost remains.

Copper sharks greater than 2 m long have a diets consisting of squids (Loligo vulgaris reynaudii), cuttlefish (Sepia), octopuses, sardines (Sardinops sagax), Whitehead's round herrings (Etrumeus whiteheadi), Southern African anchovies (Engraulis capensis), European hakes (Merluccius capensis), kingklips (Genypterus capensis), olive grunts (Pomadasys olivaceus), cape horse mackerel (Trachurus capensis), chub mackerel (Scomber japonicus) and teleost remains. Sharks larger than 2 m long can also consume other chondrichthyans such as shortnose spurdogs (Squalus megalops), eagle rays from the Family Myliobatidae, St. Joseph sharks (Callorhinchus capensis), and chondrichthyian remains. (Baker, et al., 2008; Da Silva and Burgener, 2007; Ebert, et al., 2013; Lucifora, et al., 2009; Lucifora, et al., 2005; Smale, 1991)

  • Animal Foods
  • fish
  • carrion
  • mollusks

Predation

Copper sharks are considered to be apex predators. Due to their trophic level, they have no predators within their marine environments. However, humans (Homo sapiens) pose the most threat to copper sharks. They are often found close to shore and are severely impacted by fishermen. (Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Ebert, et al., 2013; Heupel, et al., 2014; Lucifora, et al., 2009)

Ecosystem Roles

The strong predator-prey exchanges of sharks are extremely influential in marine trophic webs and, if disrupted, can cause damage to the food web. Copper sharks are apex predators that prey on a variety of marine life. Caira et al. (2005) found that a species of cestode (Phoreiobothrium robertsoni) has been discovered in copper sharks. These cestodes may be considered an oioxenous parasite, specific to a single host species. The total length of these cestodes measured at 0.02 cm. Other cestode parasites include Cathetocephalus australis, Dasyrhynchus pacificus, Dasyrhynchus talismani, Dollfusiella martini, Dollfusiella ocallaghani, Eutetrarhynchus martini, Eutetrarhynchus ocallaghani, Floriceps minacanthus, Heteronybelinia australis, Nybelinia thyrsites, Paragrillotia spratti, Pseudogrillotia spratti, and Poecilancistrium caryophyllum. The life cycle of cestodes in sharks is unknown, but it can be hypothesized that, once these tapeworms release their eggs, they are eaten by and then hatch inside copepods. Infected copepods are eaten by teleosts and infected teleosts are consumed by sharks. The adult cestodes then parasitize copper sharks. Copepod parasites include the ectoparasitic Pandarus satyrus and Nesippus orientalis. Stibarobdella macrothela is a marine leech found on the skin of copper sharks. Another parasite, Loimos winteri, is an ectoparasitic flatworm that infects their gills. (Caira, et al., 2005; Ho, 1963; Merlo-Serna and Garcia-Prieto, 2016; Owens, 2008; Pollerspock, 2012; Soto, 2000; Wunderlich, et al., 2011)

Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • Cestodes (Phoreiobothrium robertsoni)
  • Cestodes (Cathetocephalus australis)
  • Cestodes (Dasyrhynchus pacificus)
  • Cestodes (Dasyrhynchus talismani)
  • Cestodes (Dollfusiella martini)
  • Cestodes (Dollfusiella ocallaghani)
  • Cestodes (Eutetrarhynchus martini)
  • Cestodes (Eutetrarhynchus ocallaghani)
  • Cestodes (Floriceps minacanthus)
  • Cestodes (Heteronybelinia australis)
  • Cestodes (Nybelinia thyrsites)
  • Cestodes (Paragrillotia spratti)
  • Cestodes (Pseudogrillotia spratti)
  • Cestodes (Poecilancistrium caryophyllum)
  • Copepods (Pandarus satyrus)
  • Copepods (Nesippus orientalis)
  • Marine leeches (Stibarobdella macrothela)
  • Ectoparasitic flatworms (Loimos winteri)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Globally, the meat and fins of copper sharks have been used for consumption by humans. Their fins are exported to the largest fin markets in the world, located in Hong Kong, to be used for trade and made into shark fin soup. In Hong Kong, the renounced shark fin soup is traditional and is considered healthy food. In Australia, shark fillets are high in consumer demand, but their fisheries cannot provide enough shark meat to meet this demand. In South Africa, copper sharks are harvested and processed for exportation to Australia. (Da Silva and Burgener, 2007; Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Soest, 2016)

  • Positive Impacts
  • food

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Consumption of copper sharks can be detrimental to the health of humans. Mercury levels in fish bioaccumulate in the food web; thus, top predators such as copper sharks are at risk for extremely high mercury concentrations. Mercury exposure negatively impacts the nervous system, endocrine system, and reproductive system. Consumption of harmful mercury levels while pregnant may impact the developing brains and nervous systems of fetuses. Lung cancer, oral cancer, and pharyngeal cancer also are affiliated with mercury exposure. (Ebert, et al., 2013; Soest, 2016)

Conservation Status

The IUCN Red List lists copper sharks as a “Near Threatened” species. They have no special status on the US Federal List and the CITES databases. There is also no special status on the State of Michigan List.

Human exploitation is a main threat for copper sharks due to overfishing. They face immense fishing pressure throughout their geographic distribution, whether as a target species or as bycatch. All copper sharks inhabiting inshore waters are vulnerable to being captured by fishermen. A shore-based sport fishery located along the North Island of New Zealand uses copper sharks for fishing competitions. Their nursery habitats may experience habitat loss and pollution as a result of developments along coastlines.

Conservation efforts for copper sharks can be directly or indirectly beneficial. In New Zealand, conservation acts directly benefit copper sharks by banning fishing in certain management areas. Northern New Zealand has indirect beneficial efforts on copper sharks through the closure of semi-enclosed harbors and bays to Danish seining and trawling. There is also a permanent ban on gill netting that extends to 9.26 km offshore the northwest Northern Island. In Natal, South Africa, protective shark programs frequently capture copper sharks. Other indirect benefits of their conservation may result from prohibitions of taking in other shark species and gill netting bans in Australia. (Duffy and Gordon, 2003; Ebert, et al., 2013; Irigoyen and Trobbiani, 2016)

Contributors

Kailee Louk (author), Radford University, Lauren Burroughs (editor), Radford University, Layne DiBuono (editor), Radford University, Lindsey Lee (editor), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Galen Burrell (editor).

Glossary

Atlantic Ocean

the body of water between Africa, Europe, the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), and the western hemisphere. It is the second largest ocean in the world after the Pacific Ocean.

World Map

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

Ethiopian

living in sub-Saharan Africa (south of 30 degrees north) and Madagascar.

World Map

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

Pacific Ocean

body of water between the southern ocean (above 60 degrees south latitude), Australia, Asia, and the western hemisphere. This is the world's largest ocean, covering about 28% of the world's surface.

World Map

Palearctic

living in the northern part of the Old World. In otherwords, Europe and Asia and northern Africa.

World Map

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

brackish water

areas with salty water, usually in coastal marshes and estuaries.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

carrion

flesh of dead animals.

causes disease in humans

an animal which directly causes disease in humans. For example, diseases caused by infection of filarial nematodes (elephantiasis and river blindness).

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

coastal

the nearshore aquatic habitats near a coast, or shoreline.

ectothermic

animals which must use heat acquired from the environment and behavioral adaptations to regulate body temperature

electric

uses electric signals to communicate

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

food

A substance that provides both nutrients and energy to a living thing.

freshwater

mainly lives in water that is not salty.

indeterminate growth

Animals with indeterminate growth continue to grow throughout their lives.

internal fertilization

fertilization takes place within the female's body

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

keystone species

a species whose presence or absence strongly affects populations of other species in that area such that the extirpation of the keystone species in an area will result in the ultimate extirpation of many more species in that area (Example: sea otter).

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

molluscivore

eats mollusks, members of Phylum Mollusca

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

natatorial

specialized for swimming

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

pelagic

An aquatic biome consisting of the open ocean, far from land, does not include sea bottom (benthic zone).

pheromones

chemicals released into air or water that are detected by and responded to by other animals of the same species

piscivore

an animal that mainly eats fish

polygynandrous

the kind of polygamy in which a female pairs with several males, each of which also pairs with several different females.

saltwater or marine

mainly lives in oceans, seas, or other bodies of salt water.

scavenger

an animal that mainly eats dead animals

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

vibrations

movements of a hard surface that are produced by animals as signals to others

visual

uses sight to communicate

viviparous

reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.

References

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