The Surfing Handbook only recommends products we like and use, period. Sometimes we get an affiliate comission from links, but this helps us keep the site running!

The Knowledgebase

How Many Bones Does a Shark Have? The Surprising Anatomy Unveiled

Sharks are known for their unique skeletal structure, which is primarily composed of cartilaginous tissues instead of bones.

Sharks, the ocean’s apex predator, have fascinated humans for centuries. With over 500 species inhabiting the deep blue sea, it’s natural to wonder about their anatomy and how it compares to that of other marine creatures. A common question that arises when discussing sharks is related to their skeletal structure and the number of bones they possess – how many bones does a shark have?

Unlike many other vertebrates, sharks have a unique skeletal composition. Instead of having a rigid bony framework, their skeletons are made entirely of cartilaginous tissues, which are much more flexible. This distinction might be surprising to some, since sharks are indeed classified as vertebrates but do not have any bones in their structure. The cartilaginous skeleton allows them to move swiftly and efficiently through the water, thus making them formidable predators in their environment.

how many bones does a shark have - great white shark skeleton

Shark Skeleton and Bone Structure

Cartilaginous Tissues

Sharks are known for their unique skeletal structure, which is primarily composed of cartilaginous tissues instead of bones. Cartilage is a strong, durable, and flexible material that is much lighter than bone. This composition allows sharks to be more agile in the water, making tight turns, and maintaining buoyancy with less effort.

Chondrichthyes and Elasmobranchs

Sharks belong to the class Chondrichthyes and the subclass Elasmobranchii, which also includes rays and skates. These cartilaginous fish share the common trait of having skeletons made primarily of cartilage rather than bone. This fascinating evolutionary adaptation sets them apart from their bony fish counterparts, allowing them to excel in their aquatic environments.

Flexible Backbone and Vertebral Column

The backbone of a shark is an essential component of its skeletal structure and is also composed of cartilage. The vertebral column consists of individual vertebrae, which are connected by intervertebral joints and muscles. This flexible arrangement allows sharks to bend and move gracefully through the water while maintaining stability.

The cartilaginous structure of a shark’s skeleton, particularly in the vertebral column, may be partially calcified with calcium phosphates and carbonates. Although calcified, it is not considered true bone. This adaptation enables them to maintain both strength and flexibility in their skeletal system.

In addition to their vertebral column, sharks also possess a cartilaginous skull that houses and protects their brain. This structure is more flexible than a bony skull, allowing it to better absorb impacts and provide increased maneuverability.

Great White Shark Skeleton 3D rendering

Examples of cartilaginous structures in sharks:

  • Vertebral column
  • Rib-like structures
  • Fins, including pectoral, pelvic, dorsal, anal, and caudal fins

By utilizing cartilaginous structures in place of bones, sharks display a remarkable level of flexibility and agility in their environment. Their skeletal structure not only allows them to be efficient predators but also contributes to their long-term evolutionary success in the oceans.

Teeth and Jaw Structure

Types of Shark Teeth

Shark teeth come in various shapes and sizes, depending on the species and their diets. There are four basic types of shark teeth: dense flattened, needle-like, pointed lower with triangular upper, and non-functional1. Great white sharks, for instance, have triangular upper teeth and pointed lower teeth, while mako sharks have needle-like teeth. These teeth are made of a hard tissue called dentin rather than bone or enamel2.

Jaw and Skull Anatomy

how many bones does a shark have

The jaw structure of a shark is quite unique. Instead of being attached to the skull with bones and ligaments, as it is in mammals, these dangerous and effective jaws are composed mostly of cartilage3. This cartilaginous structure contributes to their powerful bite force and flexibility, making them fearsome predators. Some shark species, like sawfish, have elongated snouts with a row of modified teeth that function like a saw to cut through prey.

The rows of shark teeth are organized in a conveyor belt-like system, ensuring the predator always has sharp teeth for hunting. When one tooth is lost or damaged, another from the row behind moves forward to replace it4. This process allows sharks to have a continuous supply of functional teeth throughout their lives.

In summary, shark teeth and jaw structures are incredibly diverse and well-adapted to suit the needs of each species. The teeth are made from dentin, and their jaws are composed of cartilage, offering strength, flexibility, and adaptability. Understanding these unique adaptations can provide valuable insight into the complex world of shark biology and behavior.


  1. Shark tooth – Wikipedia ?
  2. Are Sharks Teeth Bones: Is It- Why, How, Detailed Facts Around It ?
  3. Shark anatomy – Wikipedia ?
  4. Shark Anatomy | The Shark Trust ?

Skin and Dermal Features

Sharks possess unique skin features that aid in their movement and other bodily functions. Among these unique characteristics are their placoid scales and dermal denticles.

Placoid Scales and Dermal Denticles

Shark skin is covered with millions of tiny teeth-like structures called placoid scales, also known as dermal denticles. These scales have a flat, V-shaped configuration, pointing towards the tail of the shark. The design of these scales helps reduce friction from the surrounding water and enables the shark to swim faster and more efficiently1.

Nurse shark skin, however, differs slightly from that of most other shark species. While it still has dermal denticles, its skin is relatively smoother2.

Sharks continually shed and replace their denticles as they grow, with larger ones taking the place of older, smaller scales3. The hydrodynamic efficiency of shark skin has even inspired swimming costume manufacturers to replicate the texture and design in their products4.

Shark Denticles
Shark denticles

Comparison with Bony Fish Scales

Bony fish scales differ significantly from the dermal denticles found on sharks. While shark scales resemble tiny teeth, the scales of bony fish are composed of a different substance called lamellar bone. These fish scales are typically thin and flexible, providing protection and assisting in locomotion, but they do not offer the same level of hydrodynamic efficiency as the dermal denticles found on sharks.

The distinct texture of shark skin, which can feel like sandpaper due to its dermal denticles, offers a stark contrast to the smoother, more slippery texture of bony fish skin.


  1. Biomimicry Shark Denticles | Smithsonian Ocean ?
  2. 12 Shark Facts That May Surprise You | NOAA Fisheries ?
  3. Shark Anatomy | The Shark Trust ?
  4. Ibid. ?

Buoyancy and Movement

Liver and Low-Density Oils

A shark’s liver plays a crucial role in buoyancy and movement. This organ is relatively large, accounting for 5% to 25% of a shark’s total body weight and taking up to 90% of the space inside the body cavity 1. The liver contains low-density oils that contribute significantly to its buoyancy, making it easier for sharks to stay afloat and move efficiently through the water 2.

Sharks do not have bones, but rather a cartilaginous skeleton, which allows for greater flexibility and less energy expenditure at high speeds 3. The combination of this lightweight skeleton and the oil-filled liver enables sharks to maintain neutral buoyancy while navigating through the ocean 4.

Fins and Swimming Mechanism

A shark’s fins are essential for its movement and navigational abilities. There are various types of fins, including the dorsal fin and pectoral fins. The dorsal fin, which is the most recognizable feature of a shark’s silhouette, serves to provide balance and stability while swimming 5.

Pectoral fins, on the other hand, function primarily in providing lift and directing the body through the water. By adjusting the angle and movement of these fins, sharks can control their depth and direction, gliding through the water with ease 6. This efficient swimming mechanism, together with their buoyant livers and cartilaginous skeletons, allows sharks to thrive as powerful ocean predators.


  1. ?
  2. ?
  3. ?
  4. ?
  5. ?
  6. ?

Shark Species and Anatomy

Sharks are a diverse group of fish with over 500 species inhabiting the world’s oceans. They are apex predators that have adapted to various environments and niches. Some well-known shark species include the great white shark, the shortfin mako, blue sharks, whale sharks, and angel sharks.

Distinguishing Characteristics

Unique traits set individual shark species apart. For instance, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) is known for its size and powerful build, making it one of the ocean’s top predators. On the other hand, the shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus) stands out due to its speed, capable of swimming up to 46 miles per hour in brief bursts.

Blue sharks are characterized by their slender bodies, long pectoral fins, and striking blue color. In contrast, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the world’s largest fish species and filter-feeder, with a wide, flat head and unique pattern of white spots. Finally, the angel shark (Squatina spp.) exhibits a flattened body shape resembling a ray and employs camouflage to blend in with the ocean floor.

One common feature shared among all shark species is their skeletal structure made of cartilage, which is more flexible and lighter than bone. This property enables agility and conserves energy as they maneuver through the water. Additionally, most sharks possess eight fins, including a pair of pectoral fins, a pair of pelvic fins, two dorsal fins, an anal fin, and a caudal fin. These fins play a vital role in lift, guidance, and propulsion for these powerful ocean predators.

Hayley Gordon

Hayley Gordon has been surfing for over 20 years. Riding both shortboards and longboards, she's traveled the world to surf but mainly sticks to her two home locations of San Diego and Long Island.

Related Articles

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Back to top button
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x