Researchers from the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) were given a rare opportunity this week to perform a necropsy on a great white shark that washed up on a local beach early on Monday morning.

The eight-foot shark, estimated to be around 20 years old, was found with multiple bite wounds on its body, resulting in some speculation about how the animal died. A team from North Carolina’s Marine Mammal Stranding Program transported the carcass to the university so it could be examined to determine the cause of death.

Working under the curious gaze of a crowd of students who had gathered to witness the fascinating procedure, the necropsy crew got to work cleaning the carcass and examining it for parasites and injuries before cutting it open. Shark researcher and Southern Fried Science blogger Charles Bangley was there to help out. “The shark was in good condition, had a healthy-looking liver, pretty low parasite load, and food in her stomach,” he told us via email. “So it doesn't look like cause of death was related to any indicator of poor condition."

Although there were visible bite marks on the shark’s body, researchers don’t believe that these injuries contributed to the animal’s death. They were more likely the result of scavengers taking advantage of an easy meal. 

So how did the shark die? The team is still trying to piece the clues together. Various samples were taken during the necropsy and have been sent to labs across the US, but it may be a few weeks before we have a conclusive answer.

Although we’d prefer to see this apex predator swimming out in the ocean rather than splayed on the necropsy table, there is an upside to this story. "This is a very rare event in our area,” says Dr Ann Pabst, a professor at UNCW who specialises in marine strandings. “This is an opportunity to learn a great deal of the biology of this really poorly understood and really threatened marine species." 

Shark Necropsy 1 2015 12 09
The great white being lifted to record its weight. Image © Charles Bangley
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The great white being lifted to record its weight. Image © Charles Bangley
Shark Necropsy 2 2015 12 09
Charles Bangley: "Like all sharks, great whites are constantly cycling in new teeth. The newest developed teeth were actually not calcified yet and were soft enough to bend. This shark had narrower teeth typical of immature white sharks. Yes, an 8-foot shark is still immature by white shark standards." Image © Charles Bangley
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The ragged bites seen here are likely the work of sharks with narrower teeth, according to Bangley. "When both ragged and clean bites look like they came from the same set of jaws, it's likely a large Carcharhinid like a bull shark." Image © Charles Bangley
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A number of bites were visible on the belly and sides of the shark, likely to have been inflicted by other sharks scavenging on the carcass. Image © Charles Bangley
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Despite its foul smell, the shark attracted a large crowd. Image © Charles Bangley
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In this cross-section of the shark, you can see the spinal column in the centre and the growth rings on the individual vertebrae that can be used to determine the age of the animal. Samples of vertebrae and muscle were removed for further testing. Image © Charles Bangley
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Bangley getting in on the action. "I'm cutting out the gills to look for any parasites hanging on to the gill filaments. High parasite loads can be a sign or cause of poor condition." Image © Charles Bangley
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The shark's stomach contents mostly consisted of the skeletal remains of a saltwater fish called a black drum (Pogonias cromis). Larger, older black drums are usually found in the saltier areas of estuaries, so the shark's most recent hunt may have been relatively close to shore. Although a nematode is visible (in the centre on the right), researchers did not come across very many parasites. Image © Charles Bangley