The shortfin mako shark reaches top speeds of over 60 mph, making it the world’s fastest shark.
The great white shark has largely taken the spotlight away from other sharks. But while it is viewed as an expert predator, and often, incorrectly, as a mindless killing machine, the great white is not the most agile of sharks. That mantle belongs to the shortfin mako which may, in fact, be one of the most efficient hunters in the ocean.
Mako sharks — the cheetahs of the sea
With the ocean often referred to as the great blue desert, predators that can snatch scarce prey from would-be competitors may just have the advantage in increasingly depleted oceans from that apex of all predators –human beings.
The name mako comes from the Maori word for shark. Viewed as guardian spirits by the Maori people of New Zealand, sharks are featured in several Maori myths. The teeth of mako and great whites were particularly high-prized by Maori, who used their them in necklaces, earrings and in trade.
Like the Great White, the mako shark belongs to the mackerel family of sharks. Commonly the generic name “mako” actually refers to two species: the shortfin and longfin mako.
In most cases, reports about mako refer to the shortfin mako. The lesser-known longfin is an uncommon species, which due to its long, broad pectoral fins, and slimmer build does not exhibit the speed the shortfin mako does. Both longfin and shortfin makos grow to an average of 10 feet long. They exhibit sexual dimorphism, which is when one sex grows larger than the other. As with most sharks, the females grow longer than males.
The largest shortfin mako shark caught was a 14.6-foot-long, while the longest longfin was 13.7 feet.
Both the shortfin and longfin mako can be found worldwide from California to Argentinian waters to the South Pacific. The shortfin is found primarily in offshore temperate and tropical seas, while the longfin is found in the Gulf Stream and warmer offshore waters.
But it is the shortfin’s speed that distinguishes this shark from others. According to Discovery, the shortfin mako reaches top speeds of 45 mph to over 60 mph, making it the world’s fastest shark.
“I’d compare a mako to something like a cheetah, but bigger and with larger teeth and more muscle,” said Nick Wegner of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.
This comparison is quite literal when it comes to speed. At over 60 mph, the shortfin mako approaches the top speed of the cheetah. To put that into perspective, the shortfin mako exceeds the speed limit of most highways and is half the freefall speed of a skydiver.
The science behind the mako shark
Quite simply the shortfin mako is built for speed. Over 400 million years of evolution, it has developed specific adaptations giving it the edge over all other sharks. With a conical snout like a bullet, small pectoral and dorsal fins, and a slim, but muscular streamlined body, the shortfin mako is built like a torpedo. This is fortunate, as its principal food source is the agile bluefin tuna and swordfish.
In fact, researchers have found the shortfin mako has adopted a similar muscular structure to the bluefin tuna. In a process called convergent evolution, prey and predator develop similar physical traits over time.
Unlike most fish, including most sharks, the bluefin tuna, and shortfin mako have a centralized muscle structure located close to their backbone which acts as pistons that propel both fish forward. In comparison, other fish rely on muscles that run down both sides of their body to aid them in continuous movement.
This piston-like thrust is aided further by the crescent-shaped tail of the shortfin mako. This propels the fish forward rather than adopting the standard wavy swimming pattern of other sharks.
Remarkably, the shortfin mako shark is also fast over long distances, traveling up to 60 miles per day, at an average cruising speed of 4.2 mph. That is U.S. gold medalist Michael Phelps’ top speed. Most species that can sprint over short distances lack the endurance for long distances.
Its muscles have adapted to take in oxygen to recover in half the time as other sharks. It can also contract heat into specific body organs and muscles which increase performance and make it partially warm-blooded. This trait is shared by both the shortfin mako and the great white shark.
These adaptations make the shortfin mako, not only the fastest shark, but also a long-distance champion. With a cruising speed of 4.2 mph (which is the top speed of Olympic Gold medallist Michael Phelps), they can travel 60 miles in a day.
Will a mako shark kill you?
While speed makes the shortfin mako deadly hunters, it also attracts the attention of sports fishermen. Shortfin mako are at their most dangerous for fishermen when lifted into boats. But generally speaking, shortfin mako are responsible for only one fatal attack out of nine recorded attacks on humans.
This doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe to get into the water with them. Divers report that a good sign you’re being targeted as their next meal is if they start to swim in a figure eight pattern and approach with their mouths open. That seems like a dead give away even to the most amateur of divers.