The American Museum of Natural History Announces New Exhibition: Sharks

Shark swims underwater with nose pointed vertically upwards, displaying its teeth, with copy that reads "To be great is to be misunderstood. Sharks."
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New exhibition brings visitors face-to-face with vast diversity of shark species, from the ancient megapredator Megalodon to the tiny Pocket Shark.

  • Opens to Museum Members on December 10 and to the public on December 15.
  • Media preview to be held on Wednesday, December 8—RSVP here.

People have been fascinated by sharks for as long as we have been exploring the oceans. Fixed in the public imagination as toothy, fearsome predators, sharks are far more fascinating, and more complex, than their depiction in popular culture. Sharks, a new exhibition opening at the American Museum of Natural History this winter, will bring to life the incredible diversity of this ancient group of fishes and will offer visitors a unique look at pre-historic and modern shark species, their habitats and hunting styles, and the conservation threats these magnificent animals are facing today.

The evolutionary history of sharks began nearly 450 million years ago, more than 200 million years before the first dinosaur. Today, there are more than 500 species of sharks and more than 650 species of their close relatives—rays, skates, and chimaeras—inhabiting nearly all of the world’s aquatic environments, from coral reefs to the polar seas, and even freshwater rivers. While the terrifying monster from the movie Jaws is what many might imagine when they think of sharks, today’s scientists are uncovering many surprising facts about this diverse group. Convinced that all sharks are carnivores? (Fact: Recent research shows that bonnethead sharks eat seagrass and can digest plants). Where do great white sharks give birth to their young? (Fact: By tracking females, scientists recently discovered a great white shark nursery off the coast of Long Island, New York). Can shark tourism be more profitable than shark fishing? (Fact: where fishing and ecotourism are regulated, tourism can support shark communities for generations. In fact, a single whale shark has been shown to bring thousands of more dollars as a beacon for tourism than could be earned by killing it). Sharks addresses these exciting questions and reveals more secrets of the ocean’s top predators through life-sized models, touch-free interactives, real fossils, and dynamic media presentations.

Visitors to Sharks will explore the diversity, anatomy and behavior of sharks and their close relatives through encounters with tiger sharks, great whites, and other familiar favorites along with little-known creatures such as the torpedo ray, the longnose chimaera, and the tiny dwarf lantern shark, which glows in the dark and is small enough to hold in your hand. The exhibition will showcase fossils from the Museum’s extensive collections, current Museum research, and a spectacular “parade” of sharks highlighting the diversity of ancient and modern shark species through 30 lifelike models that range from 33 feet to 5 inches long, including the prehistoric megapredator megalodon, the “Tyrannosaurus rex of the seas,” which was so large it preyed on whales. Other exhibition highlights include an interactive that challenges visitors to hunt like a hammerhead and touch-free media that reveals distinctive shark traits with the wave of a hand. Sharks also delves into the serious conservation issues facing sharks today, including overfishing and habitat destruction, demonstrating that while these amazing animals pose few threats to people, we represent a serious danger to them.

Sharks is curated by John Sparks, curator in the Museum’s Department of Ichthyology in the Division of Vertebrate Zoology, who previously curated Unseen Oceans, which explored the latest ocean science, and Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, which focused on the diversity of organisms that produce light. He also co-curated Life at the Limits: Stories of Amazing Species, about organisms with surprising abilities and those that thrive in extreme habitats. Sparks’ recent research explores the role that bioluminescence and biofluorescence play in the diversification of both shallow-reef and deep-sea fishes. His current projects include investigating the evolution and function of bioluminescent signaling systems in ponyfishes (Leiognathidae), lanternfishes (Myctophiformes), and dragonfishes (Stomiiformes), the origins of Madagascar’s freshwater and nearshore marine fishes, and the evolution and function of biofluorescence in marine fishes. Sharks has also drawn on the expertise of John Maisey, curator-in-charge emeritus, fossil fish, Division of Paleontology, whose research focuses on early chondrichthyans and shark evolution.

Sharks will open to the public on Wednesday, December 15, 2021. Museum Members will be able to preview the exhibition from Friday, December 10, through Sunday, December 12.