Distribution and habitat
The great hammerhead inhabits tropical waters around the world, between the latitudes of 40°N and 37°S. In the Atlantic Ocean, it is found from North Carolina to Uruguay, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and from Morocco to Senegal, and the Mediterranean Sea. It is found all along the rim of the Indian Ocean, and in the Pacific Ocean from the Ryukyu Islands to Australia, New Caledonia, and French Polynesia, and from southern Baja California to Peru. It may occur off Gambia, Guinea, Mauritania, Sierra Leone, and Western Sahara, but this has not been confirmed. Great hammerheads may be found from inshore waters of less than 1 m (3.3 ft) deep, to a depth of 80 m (230 ft) offshore. They favor coral reefs, but also inhabit continental shelves, island terraces, lagoons, and deep water near land. They are migratory; populations off Florida and in the South China Sea have been documented moving closer to the poles in the summer.
The streamlined body of the great hammerhead with the expanded cephalofoil is typical of the hammerhead sharks. Adult great hammerheads can be distinguished from the scalloped hammerhead and the smooth hammerhead by the shape of the cephalofoil, which has a nearly straight front margin (as opposed to arched), with prominent medial and lateral indentations. The width of the cephalofoil is 23–27% of the body length. The teeth are triangular and strongly serrated, becoming more oblique towards the corners of the mouth. There are 17 tooth rows on either side of the upper jaw with 2–3 teeth at the symphysis (the midline of the jaw), and 16–17 teeth on either side of the lower jaw and 1–3 at the symphysis.
The first dorsal fin is distinctive, being very tall and strongly falcate (sickle-shaped), and originates over the insertions of the pectoral fins. The second dorsal fin and anal fin are both relatively large, with deep notches in the rear margins. The pelvic fins are falcate with concave rear margins, in contrast to the straight-margined pelvic fins of the scalloped hammerhead. The skin is covered with closely placed dermal denticles. Each denticle is diamond-shaped, with 3–5 horizontal ridges leading to marginal teeth in smaller individuals, and 5–6 in larger ones. The great hammerhead is dark brown to light gray to olive above, fading to white on the underside. The fins are unmarked in adults, while the tip of the second dorsal fin may be dark in juveniles.
The average great hammerhead measures up to 3.5 m (11.5 ft) long and weighs over 230 kg (500 lb). A small percentage of the population, mostly or all females, are much larger. The longest great hammerhead on record was 6.1 m (20 ft). The heaviest known great hammerhead is a 4.4 m (14.4 ft) long, 580 kg (1,280 lb) female caught off Boca Grande, Florida in 2006. The weight of the female was due to her being pregnant with 55 near-natal pups.
Biology and ecology
The great hammerhead is a solitary, nomadic predator that tends to be given a wide berth by other reef sharks. If confronted, they may respond with an agonistic display: dropping their pectoral fins and swimming in a stiff or jerky fashion. Juveniles are preyed upon by larger sharks such as bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), while adults have no major predators. Yellow jacks (Carangoides bartholomaei) have been seen rubbing themselves against the hammerhead's flanks, possibly to rid themselves of parasites. Schools of pilot fish (Naucrates ductor) sometimes accompany the great hammerhead. The great hammerhead is parasitized by several species of copepods, including Alebion carchariae, A. elegans, Nesippus orientalis, N. crypturus, Eudactylina pollex, Kroyeria gemursa, and Nemesis atlantica.
An active predator with a varied diet, known prey of the great hammerhead include invertebrates such as crabs, lobsters, squid, and octopus, bony fishes such as tarpon, sardines, sea catfishes, toadfish, porgies, grunts, jacks, croakers, groupers, flatfishes, boxfishes, and porcupine fishes, and smaller sharks such as smoothhounds. At Rangiroa Atoll, great hammerheads prey opportunistically on grey reef sharks (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos) that have exhausted themselves pursuing mates. The species is known to be cannibalistic.
The favorite prey of the great hammerhead are rays and skates, especially stingrays. The venomous spines of stingrays are frequently found lodged inside its mouth and do not seem to bother the shark; one specimen caught off Florida had 96 spines in and around its mouth. Great hammerheads primarily hunt at dawn or dusk, swinging their heads in broad angles over the sea floor so as to pick up the electrical signatures of stingrays buried in the sand, via numerous ampullae of Lorenzini located on the underside of the cephalofoil. The cephalofoil also serves as a hydrofoil that allows the shark to quickly turn around and strike at a ray once detected. Off Florida, large hammerheads are often the first to reach newly baited sharklines, suggesting a particularly keen sense of smell.
Another function of the cephalofoil is suggested by an observation of a great hammerhead attacking a southern stingray (Dasyatis americana) in the Bahamas: the shark first knocked the ray to the sea bottom with a powerful blow from above, and then pinned it with its head while pivoting to take a large bite from each side of the ray's pectoral fin disc. This effectively crippled the stingray, which was then picked up in the jaws and sawed apart with rapid shakes of the head. A great hammerhead has also been seen attacking a spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) in open water by taking a massive bite out of one of its pectoral fins. The ray thus incapacitated, the shark once again used its head to pin it to the bottom and pivoted to take the ray in its jaws head-first. These observations suggest that the great hammerhead seeks to disable rays with the first bite, a strategy similar to that of the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), and that its cephalofoil is an adaptation for prey handling.
As with other hammerhead sharks, great hammerheads are viviparous: once the developing young use up their supply of yolk, the yolk sac is transformed into a structure analogous to a mammalian placenta. Unlike most other sharks, which mate on or near the sea bottom, great hammerheads have been observed mating near the surface. In one account from the Bahamas, a mating pair ascended while swimming around each other, mating when they reached the surface. Females breed once every two years, giving birth from late spring to summer in the Northern Hemisphere and from December to January in Australian waters. The gestation period is 11 months. The litter size ranges from 6–55 pups, with 20–40 being typical. The young measure 50–70 cm (20–28 in) at birth; males reach maturity at 2.3–2.7 m (7.5–8.9 ft) long and 51 kg (113 lbs) and the females at 2.5–3.0 m (8.2–9.8 ft) and 41 kg (90 lbs). The young differ from the adults in having a rounded frontal margin on the head. The typical lifespan of this species is 20–30 years; the record Boca Grande female was estimated to be 40–50 years old.