It's not exactly easy to study the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) in the wild, but new evidence suggests that while we've been worrying about tigers, gorillas and other obviously rare species, the great white has been quietly disappearing from the oceans.

We already knew that shark species around the world have experienced dramatic declines in recent years, with some species down 97 percent or more. But great whites were not effectively studied until now.

There are currently just 3,500 tigers in the wild around the world, but "the estimated total population of great white sharks in the world's oceans is actually less than the number of tigers," Ronald O'Dor, senior scientist at the Census of Marine Life, said last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The census is an international effort currently involved in a decadelong study of ocean biodiversity.

Although O'Dor made the announcement, this new information actually comes from unpublished research by Barbara Block of Stanford University, who has been tagging and tracking the giant fish. In the process of the study, Block's team found that they were repeatedly encountering the same sharks. This suggests that great white populations have plummeted and are now smaller than previously thought. "People see a great white shark on the south California coast, and another hundreds of miles away," O'Dor said. "We are now understanding that they are more mobile than we thought and, actually, it's the same shark appearing in different places."

Hopefully, information like this can help to change peoples' perceptions about great whites, an important part of the ocean food chain that have been demonized ever since Steven Spielberg's sensationalistic film based on the late Peter Benchley's fear-inducing novel Jaws. "Until recently, people thought sharks were bad and there was no urge to save great whites. Now people are beginning to understand that they are rare and that they are a wonderful species," O'Dor said.

It hasn't helped that the media continues to blame great white sharks for attacks on humans, even in a place where they are rarely seen, like Florida. When a kiteboarder was killed February 3rd by a shark, the local news channel ran a headline "Expert: Great White Shark Could Have Been Behind Fatal Attack"—despite the fact that the expert quoted in the article actually said "There has never been an attack here by a white shark."

It should be noted that Benchley himself later came to renounce his novel and to advocate for shark conservation, spending his latter years trying to dispel the myths that it created.

Photo: Great white shark, via Wikipedia