How Do Sharks Breathe?



  • Sharks are fish, and virtually all fish breathe through the use of gills. These are the collection of slit-like openings on the sides of fish, located behind the head. Behind the gills are networks of complex capillaries. These networks of tiny blood vessels withdraw oxygen from the water as it passes over them.

Swimming and Breathing

  • Most species of shark breathe by swimming, using the forward motion to pass water over their gills. These sharks must be in constant forward motion, or they will suffocate. This is why dead sharks are frequently found in fishing drift or anti-shark nets. Once entangled in the net, the shark is unable to breathe and cannot free itself in the limited amount of time it has before "drowning."

Exceptions: Sleepers on the Bottom

  • Some sharks have strong neck muscles that they can use to pump water over their gills, and therefore do not need to be constantly swimming in order to breathe. Examples are the nurse shark, angel shark or lemon shark. These can often be found resting on the sea bottom, waiting for their own particular prey.

Exceptions: Peculiar Local Conditions

  • Scientists have also found places where peculiar local conditions allow sharks who otherwise must swim forward all the time in order to breathe to otherwise remain stationary. A common example is a cave through which a very strong current is passing, or has a freshwater source welling up through it (this source would be more strongly oxygenated than the surrounding sea water, making breathing much easier).

Whale and Basking Sharks

  • Two of the ocean´s largest fish, the whale and basking sharks, feed themselves by straining plankton and other tiny creatures from vast amounts of water. Instead of breathing through their gills, they breathe from the strained water and expel that back out through their gills.

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