What Do Tiger Sharks Eat? What’s Really in Their Stomachs?

Tiger sharks prowl tropical and temperate waters worldwide, hunting with stealth and power. Their formidable jaws crammed with serrated teeth can devour sea turtles, seals, dolphins, and even other sharks whole. These apex predators eat a smorgasbord of prey, earning them the nickname “garbage cans of the sea.”

However, tiger sharks are more than just indiscriminate eating machines. Their diverse diets support healthy ocean ecosystems while their presence balances food chains. Understanding what tiger sharks eat provides insight into their ecological role and importance.

Hunting Behavior and Feeding Patterns

Tiger sharks have a reputation as indiscriminate eaters that will consume virtually anything they come across. While it’s true that they have diverse diets and will eat a wide range of prey, tiger sharks do exhibit some feeding patterns and preferences:

  • Opportunistic hunters – Tiger sharks primarily hunt by themselves rather than in packs. They are constantly on the move and rely on keen senses of smell and vibration detection to locate potential prey items. This allows them to capitalize whenever opportunities to feed present themselves.
  • Varied feeding times – Unlike some shark species that primarily feed at night, tiger sharks will eat throughout the day and night. This adaptable feeding schedule allows them to take advantage of any available food sources.
  • Scavenging behavior – In addition to live prey, tiger sharks are well-known for scavenging on dead and decaying animals. Their formidable jaws allow them to shear through tough tissues with ease to access nutritious organ meats.
  • Fondness for “tasty” prey – While tiger sharks are willing to eat just about anything, they do demonstrate preferences for prey animals with high fat and protein content. This drives them to seek out prey like sea turtles, marine mammals, and fish.
  • Ontogenetic shifts – Younger tiger sharks feed mostly on small fish and invertebrates, while adults expand their diets to include larger and more diverse prey like other elasmobranchs, mammals, and reptiles.

Common Natural Prey

The tiger shark’s varied diet includes a diverse array of marine wildlife found throughout tropical and temperate oceans around the world. Here are some of their most common natural prey items:

Sea Turtles

All species of sea turtles make for tempting tiger shark prey. Their shells are no match against the extreme bite force of these predators. Often ambushing vulnerable hatchlings, tiger sharks also attack healthy adult turtles. Favored targets include greens, hawksbills, and leatherbacks. The scales and shells pose little barrier – tiger sharks simply crunch through to access the nutritious flesh.

But the indigestible shells present a challenge, taking up valuable space in stomachs. To solve this, tiger sharks can physically invert their stomachs, forcing the empty shells back out of their mouth. This uniquely allows them to clear irritation and continue feasting on large turtle meals.


Tiger sharks prey heavily on bony fish species in the open ocean and along coral reefs. Some common fish consumed include tuna, jacks, wrasses, eels, and triggerfish. Their versatile jaws and teeth allow them to bite chunks out of large prey or snip smaller fish neatly in half.

Rays and Small Sharks

The tiger shark occupies the top predatory niche in many habitats. However, smaller shark species like blacktip reef sharks and stingrays still end up as common food sources. Tiger sharks may also practice some degree of cannibalism by eating smaller individuals of their own species.


Seabirds like gulls, terns, pelicans, and boobies spend a great deal of time foraging over open water – bringing them into the domain of tiger sharks. If given the opportunity, tiger sharks will strike vertically towards the surface to ambush unsuspecting birds from below.

Marine Mammals

The speed, size, and power of marine mammals like dolphins, sea lions, and seals pose no match for determined tiger sharks. Using stealth approaches, they attack vulnerable animals like juveniles, the sick, or injured adults. This helps provide them with a nutritious, high-fat meal.


A huge component of the tiger shark’s diverse diet is dead animals. Their formidable sense of smell allows them to detect blood, decomposition gases, and other chemical cues from animals that have recently died and sunk towards the seafloor. Tiger sharks will scavenge whale carcasses but also smaller fare like dead fish, turtles, or birds.

Unusual and Rare Prey

The tiger shark’s reputation as an unfussy eater comes from the fact that they will indulge their curiosity and taste unusual potential prey sources that most predators avoid:

Garbage and Debris

A combination of acute senses and curiosity means tiger sharks will readily investigate – and eat – discarded human garbage. This includes objects like aluminum cans, plastic bottles, bags, eating utensils, and more. Consuming such unusual items may irritate their digestive tract or negatively impact their health.

Toxic Prey

In some cases, tiger sharks will eat normally toxic organisms without apparent ill effects. Their rapid digestion may allow them to process out the toxins before they can build up. Toxic prey like stingrays, pufferfish, boxfish, and even sea snakes get consumed.

License Plates

In one strange phenomenon, tiger sharks have a propensity for eating license plates off of submerged cars. Hawaii even has galleries displaying the dozens of plates recovered from caught tiger sharks. It’s believed their metallic, reflective appearance tricks sharks into confusing license plates for fish scales.

Other Sharks

Tiger sharks occupy the top predatory shark niche in tropical waters around the world. But even apex predators can run into trouble – researchers have found that tiger sharks have consumed dangerous sharks like bull sharks and great white sharks.

Why Such a Diverse Diet Matters

There are several evolutionary advantages that come along with the tiger shark’s diverse, generalist diet:

Maximizes Caloric Intake

By being willing to eat anything from fish and sea birds to marine mammals and carrion, tiger sharks are able to take in the maximum amount of calories to support their large body size. This gives them an advantage over pickier-eating predators.

Adaptability to Changing Habitats

If prey abundance changes or habitat disruption occurs, species with narrow, specialized diets suffer. Meanwhile, tiger sharks are able to flexibly exploit many food sources to withstand environmental changes that can impact more specialized feeders.

Keeps Ecosystems Balanced

As an apex predator, tiger sharks help regulate and balance marine food webs by preying upon numerous species lower in the ecosystem. This predatory pressure prevents any one mid-level species from becoming too abundant at the expense of ecological stability.

Expands Geographical Range

Thanks to their willingness to eat anything, tiger sharks can venture across diverse marine ecosystems throughout the world’s temperate, subtropical, and tropical oceans. By accessing varied food sources, they expand their geographical spheres of influence.

Hunting Effectiveness and Attack Strategy

Tiger sharks have evolved a number of specialized adaptations and behaviors to make them highly effective hunters:

Stealth Approaches

Despite their large size, tiger sharks can move slowly and with a high degree of stealth. Their counter-shaded coloration camouflages them against the ocean surface when viewed from below. Tiger sharks then launch rapid attacks when prey ventures within striking distance.

Lightning Fast Speed

These large predators are shockingly fast in short bursts. Tiger sharks can rapidly accelerate up to speeds of 20-25 miles per hour for brief periods when motivated by nearby prey or attracted scents. This allows them to strike quickly at nearshore animals or overwhelm faster prey like tuna offshore.

Powerful Jaws and Teeth

With jaws full of long, serrated teeth, tiger sharks can take deadly bites out of large prey like marine mammals and sea turtles. The unique shape of their teeth also allows them to snip smaller chunks by grasping prey and shaking their heads violently.

High Stomach Acid Tolerance

Most predators avoid spiny or toxic prey since it would harm their digestive systems when consumed. But tiger sharks have stomach acid pH almost neutral enough to digest rusty nails. This allows them to stomach normally dangerous fare like stingrays, pufferfish, or even toxic sea snakes.

Unique Challenges of the Tiger Shark Diet

Choosing to eat such a wide range of food comes with some distinct drawbacks and challenges as well:

Increased Exposure to Toxins

By being willing to eat toxin-containing prey or marine pollution and debris, tiger sharks face higher exposure to heavy metals like mercury and potentially damaging petrochemical compounds. Researchers have demonstrated correlations between concentrations of oceanic toxins and liver damage in tiger sharks.

Higher Risk of Infections

Eating unusual prey items of unknown origin could expose tiger sharks to dangerous pathogens not typically encountered by most predators. Their scavenging behavior also puts them at greater risk of infections when consuming decaying flesh containing pathogenic microorganisms.

Gastrointestinal Blockages

The extreme curiosity of tiger sharks causes them to sample odd items floating in the ocean or discarded waste that has sunk towards the sea floor. But these unusual organic and inorganic materials can potentially cause obstructions or blockages in digestive tracts.

Unique Attributes of Tiger Sharks

Over millions of years, the tiger shark has evolved unique specializations allowing it to thrive on such a diverse, opportunistic diet:

Extremely Powerful Jaws and Teeth

Tiger sharks have one of the most powerful bites among all shark species – exerting upwards of 3 tons per square inch! Their rugged teeth resemble cocktail glasses with double edges allowing effortless cutting and sawing through all kinds of flesh and bone.

Exceptional Sense of Smell

Behind that blunt snout lies an incredible olfactory sense unmatched by other sharks. Tiger sharks can detect a few parts per million of odor cues and chemical attraction signals even from enormous distances away. This allows them to key in on tempting carrion or wounded prey.

Near Neutral Stomach Acid

Most predators generate intensely acidic digestive juices to break down consumed meats. But tiger sharks have evolved stomach acid only slightly more acidic than seawater. This gives them enough dissolving power for muscle and skin but also allows digestion of unusual items like tin cans or sea snake venom toxins.

Rapid Digestion and Metabolism

To handle such a diverse buffet of food sources, tiger sharks move ingested materials through their guts exceptionally fast before toxins or infectious agents can be absorbed. They also run hot – maintaining internal temperatures higher than surrounding waters to gain metabolic advantages.

Adaptable Hunting Approaches

Whether hunting solo or scavenging whale carcasses, tiger sharks remain adaptable in their strategies. They patrol calmly but accelerate with shocking speed towards tempting food scents. Switching tactics allows them to target everything from startled seabirds at the surface down to bottom-dwelling crabs buried in sediment.

The tiger shark’s status as an apex ocean predator depends greatly on its diverse tastes and willingness to sample a wide range of unusual prey that other predators typically avoid. These varied food sources provide nutrition to fuel tiger sharks from coral reefs to open oceans worldwide!

Similar Posts