‘Sharks’ Are Embattled Heroes at the American Museum of Natural History

You could call it an unfortunate misunderstanding. Its impact, however, is as vast as the oceans.

I refer to the terror sharks inspire, which, according to the American Museum of Natural History, stems largely from ignorance, as well as “a hundred years of hype.” (“Jaws” notwithstanding, shark attacks are rare and often occur when the fish mistake a person for something far more delectable, like a seal.) As this Manhattan museum’s new exhibition about these extraordinary creatures playfully puts it, “They’re just not that into you.”

But the 8,500-square-foot show “Sharks,” which opened on Wednesday with life-size models, hands-free interactives, astonishing footage and sobering warnings about extinction, offers many reasons that you should be into them.

“We wanted to convey the elegance and beauty and quality of sharks,” Lauri Halderman, the museum’s vice president for exhibition, said. “And take away the fear factor,” although, she added, “we play with the fear factor a little.”

They certainly do. One of the first objects in the show’s gallery, which has the dark, mysterious feel of an underwater cavern, is a model of the giant upper portion of a megalodon, an ancient shark often referred to as the Tyrannosaurus rex of the seas (though its bite force, up to 41,000 pounds, was far worse). Measuring about 50 feet long, this enormous predator went extinct some 3.6 million years ago — except in Hollywood, which resurrected it for the 2018 cheap-thrills movie “The Meg.”

With its gaping jaws, the exhibition’s megalodon serves as a kind of smiling greeter for a family reunion of not only sharks but also their close relatives: skates, chimaeras and rays. These species, all fish with distinctive skeletons made of cartilage overlaid with rock-hard tiles — a combination that is more flexible than bone — have ancestors that evolved 450 million years ago, long before the doomed dinosaurs.

“We wanted to present the evolution of sharks because no one’s ever really done that in a very comprehensive way,” said John Sparks, a curator in the museum’s department of ichthyology, the zoological branch that studies fish. Relying on the work of John Maisey, a curator emeritus at the museum, “Sharks” traces this lineage with fossils, including a partial one of the helicoprion, an extinct prehistoric species whose buzzsaw-like teeth were intriguingly arranged in a spiral. (On Saturday at 10 a.m., the museum will present “The Scientist Is In: Ancient Sharks,” a free virtual family program that investigates this ancestry.)

“Sharks” also features more than 25 other detailed models, ranging from the dwarf lantern shark, smaller than a human hand, to the 65-foot-long whale shark, which looks intimidating but eats only small creatures like plankton and krill.

“How did sharks survive through all these extinction events?” said Sparks, who curated the show. “Well, it’s likely due to this diversity you see here.”

That means divergent abilities that would rival those of a squad of Marvel superheroes. The Greenland shark, which may live more than 500 years, contains a chemical that acts like antifreeze. The swell shark, a fluorescent species, has skin areas that glow green in sunlight. A thresher shark can kill prey with an 80-mile-per-hour blow from its tail. And all species have something that sounds as if it came from a Harry Potter novel: ampullae of Lorenzini, receptors that respond to electrical fields, which all animals generate.

“They can detect very weak electric signals, which helps them find buried prey,” Sparks said.

“Sharks” explores these attributes through digital exhibits that are both interactive and, in response to Covid-19, completely touchless. By just waving your hand over sensors — the technological equivalent of ampullae of Lorenzini — you can play games, like pairing different sharks with their habitats or matching land animals with shark species that use the same defense tactics.

You will find cinematic gems, too. In addition to a wall-size screen that shows continuous footage from Discovery’s “Shark Week,” the exhibition has many clips of extraordinary shark behavior. I watched a goblin shark suddenly thrust out its slingshot-like jaw at 10 feet per second to capture prey, and spinner sharks perform a lethal ballet: Entering a school of smaller fish, they pirouette at top speed, biting constantly as they twirl.

The exhibition also allows visitors to mimic being a shark. One interactive with child appeal lets you adopt the perspective of a hammerhead as you hunt along the ocean’s bottom. At two stations, you can peer into a screen to see your own head replaced by that of one of the show’s species. (With my notepad, I became a studious-looking thresher shark.)

“It’s frivolous, it’s fun,” Halderman said of these displays. “On the other hand, though, it’s just interesting to try to build empathy.”

And why do sharks need our empathy? Because they’re largely helpless against the far more ruthless predators who are reading this. It is estimated that human actions like overfishing, habitat destruction and shrimp trawling — an unsustainable practice that inadvertently captures many other marine creatures — kill more than 100 million sharks every year. (About a third of all species are now endangered.) By contrast, sharks kill about 10 people annually.

“Even if you’re around great whites and these sharks that occasionally attack humans — tiger sharks, oceanic whitetips — 99.9 percent of the time, they’re not going to bother you,” Sparks said. On numerous occasions, because he was carrying fish specimens, he has been “nipped” by small reef sharks, but “I don’t hold it against them at all,” he said cheerfully.

When you’re in water, the exhibition advises letting sleeping sharks lie. And if one behaves aggressively, try to maintain eye contact. (They prefer stealth attacks.) Blows to the snout and eyes can deter them, too.

Far more useful, however, is the show’s information on shark conservation. Regulating fishing practices, banning the taking of shark fins for soup, establishing shark sanctuaries and promoting responsible ecotourism can help to restore their numbers.

“This is an amazing group of organisms that’s been around a long, long time, and to lose them would just be devastating,” Sparks said.

It would also harm humans. As apex predators, sharks play a crucial role in marine ecosystems. If they die out, their plant-eating prey proliferate. Decreased vegetation leads to increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, which accelerates climate change. A fall in shark populations also limits the study of these species, whose characteristics have been adapted to develop better boats and high-performance swimwear. So while sharks may not be as cuddly-looking as giant pandas, the exhibition’s organizers would like us to cherish them equally.

As Halderman put it, “If people come in thinking, ‘Oh, wow, sharks are so dangerous,’ and they leave thinking, ‘Oh, wow, sharks are so endangered,’ I think we’ve all done a good job.”

Sharks

Through Aug. 14 at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West, Manhattan; 212-769-5100, amnh.org. Timed tickets are required, along with proof of vaccination. (Children ages 5 to 11 must show proof of at least one vaccine dose.)

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