Currently there are approximately 400 described species of sharks, however new species are being described all the time. In addition, there are around 400 species of rays, a close relative of sharks. Like all living things that humans know about, they are classified by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, and species. Sharks all belong to the same class, Chondrichthyes, but they are divided into 8 different orders.
More than 440 species of sharks split across eight orders, listed below in roughly their evolutionary relationship from ancient to modern:
- Hexanchiformes: Examples from this group include the cow sharks, frilled shark and even a shark that resembles a
- Squaliformes: This group includes the bramble sharks, dogfish and roughsharks, and prickly shark.
- Pristiophoriformes: These are the sawsharks, with an elongated, toothed snout that they use for slashing their prey.
- Squatiniformes: Also known as angel sharks, they are flattened sharks with a strong resemblance to stingrays and skates.
- Heterodontiformes: They are generally referred to as the bullhead or horn sharks.
- Orectolobiformes: They are commonly referred to as the carpet sharks, including zebra sharks, nurse sharks, wobbegongs and the whale shark.
- Carcharhiniformes: Commonly known as groundsharks, the species include the blue, tiger, bull, grey reef, blacktip reef, Caribbean reef, blacktail reef, whitetip reef and oceanic whitetip sharks (collectively called the requiem sharks) along with the houndsharks, catsharks and hammerhead sharks. They are distinguished by an elongated snout and a nictitating membrane which protects the eyes during an attack.
- Lamniformes: They are commonly known as the mackerel sharks. They include the goblin shark, basking shark, megamouth shark, the thresher sharks, shortfin and longfin mako sharks, and great white shark. They are distinguished by their large jaws and ovoviviparous reproduction. The Lamniformes include the extinct megalodon, Carcharodon megalodon.
Sharks are a group of fishes characterized by a cartilaginous skeleton, five to seven gill slits on the sides of the head, and pectoral fins that are not fused to the head. Modern sharks are classified within the clade Selachimorpha (or Selachii), and are the sister group to the rays. However, the term “shark” has also been used for extinct members of the suborder Elasmobranchii outside the Selachimorpha, such as Cladoselache and Xenacanthus. Under this broader definition, the earliest known sharks date from more than 420 million years ago.
Since that time, sharks have diversified into over 400 species. They range in size from the small dwarf lanternshark (Etmopterus perryi), a deep sea species of only 17 centimetres (6.7 in) in length, to the whale shark (Rhincodon typus), the largest fish in the world, which reaches approximately 12 metres (39 ft). Despite its size, the whale shark feeds only on plankton, squid, and small fish by filter feeding. Sharks are found in all seas and are common down to depths of 2,000 metres (6,600 ft). They generally do not live in freshwater although there are a few known exceptions, such as the bull shark and the river shark that can survive in both seawater and freshwater. They breathe through five to seven gill slits. Sharks have a covering of dermal denticles that protects their skin from damage and parasites in addition to improving their fluid dynamics. They also have several sets of replaceable teeth.
Well-known species such as the great white shark, tiger shark, blue shark, mako shark, and the hammerhead shark are apex predators—organisms at the top of their underwater food chain. Their predatory skill fascinates and frightens humans, even though their survival is threatened by human-related activities.
Sharks belong to the superorder Selachimorpha in the subclass Elasmobranchii in the class Chondrichthyes. The Elasmobranchii also include rays and skates; the Chondrichthyes also include Chimaeras. It is currently thought that the sharks form a polyphyletic group: some sharks are more closely related to rays than they are to some other sharks.
The superorder Selachimorpha is divided into Galea (or Galeomorphii), and Squalea. The Galeans are the Heterodontiformes, Orectolobiformes, Lamniformes, and Carcharhiniformes. Lamnoids and Carcharhinoids are usually placed in one clade, but recent studies show the Lamnoids and Orectoloboids are a clade. Some scientists now think that Heterodontoids may be Squalean. The Squalea is divided into Hexanchoidei and Squalomorpha. The Hexanchoidei includes the Hexanchiformes and Chlamydoselachiformes. The Squalomorpha contains the Squaliformes and the Hypnosqualea. The Hypnosqualea may be invalid. It includes the Squatiniformes, and the Pristorajea, which may also be invalid, but includes the Pristiophoriformes and the Batoidea.