Great Hammerhead

Sphyrna mokarran - Great Hammerhead

Great hammerhead in the Bahamas. Photo © Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch

Sphyrna mokarran

This large shark has a very straight and square cephalophoil, the 'hammer head', compared to other hammerheads, and a stout, classically shark-shaped body with a large, curved first dorsal fin. It is a dusky dark brown or light gray, fading to a white underside, with a lobed, asymmetrical caudal (tail) fin, and a maximum length of 20 feet. This warm-water, coastal shark eats bony fish and invertebrates, as well as other sharks and rays. Because of their size and unpredictable nature, they should be treated with caution.

Order - Carcharhiniformes
Family - Sphyrnidae
Genus - Sphyrna
Species - mokarran

Common Names

English language common names include great hammerhead, great hammerhead shark, and squat-headed hammerhead shark. Other common names are abu garn (Arabic), akran (Arabic), cação-martelo (Portuguese), cachona (Spanish), cachona grande (Spanish), cambeva (Portuguese), cawar (Somali), cornuda de ley (Spanish), cornuda gigante (Spanish), glowomlot olbrzymi (Polish), grand requin marteau (French), grande squalo martello (Italian), großer hammerhai (German), grote hamerhaai (Dutch), hira-shumokuzame (Japanese), isovasarahai (Finnish), jarjur (Arabic), martelo (Portuguese), martillo (Spanish), megalozygena (Greek), nami-shumokuzame (Japanese), papa mbingusi (Swahili), peix martelo (Portuguese), : pesce martello maggiore (Italian), pez martillo (Spanish), requin marteau (French), tollo cruz (Spanish), yu parang (Malay), and yu tukul (Malay).

Importance to Humans

Sphyrna mokarran - Great Hammerhead

Great hammerhead swimming at the surface during migration. Photo courtesy NOAA

Fished both commercially and recreationally, great hammerheads are highly valued for their fins while the meat is rarely consumed by humans. They are also provide liver oil used in vitamins, hides for leather, and carcasses ground into fishmeal. Although not often a targeted species, the great hammerhead is regularly caught in tropical regions with longlines, bottom nets, hook-and-line, and trawls.

Recreationally fished with surface bait, the great hammerhead provides a good fight and exciting sport to fishers.

Danger to Humans

Hammerheads are considered potentially dangerous sharks. According to the International Shark Attack File, there have been 21 unprovoked attacks with 2 resulting in fatalities for all species of the genus Sphyrna. However, few if any attacks can be directly linked with this species due to the difficulty distinguishing species of hammerheads involved in attacks. Due to its large size and variety of prey, this shark should be treated with respect and caution.


Sphyrna mokarran - Great Hammerhead

Great hammerhead in the Bahamas. Photo © Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch

In the US, hammerheads (with the exception of the bonnethead which is a small coastal species) are grouped with large coastal species, a group that biologist consider to be one of the most vulnerable to overfishing. Although not a targeted species, this hammerhead is taken by gillnet and longline and as bycatch in driftnet fisheries. Mortality is likely to be significant although little data is available on populations and fishing impact. Different species of hammerheads are sometimes difficult to identify in high seas fisheries where observers are often not present, resulting in insufficient bycatch data.

> Check the status of the great hammerhead at the IUCN website.

The IUCN is a global union of states, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in a partnership that assesses the conservation status of species.

Geographical Distribution

Sphyrna mokarran - Great Hammerhead, Map

World distribution map for the great hammerhead

Circumtropical in distribution, the great hammerhead is found in coastal warm temperate and tropical waters within 40°N - 37°S latitude. In the western Atlantic Ocean, it ranges from North Carolina (US) south to Uruguay, including the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean regions, while in the eastern Atlantic Ocean, this species ranges from Morocco to Senegal, including the Mediterranean Sea. Distribution of the great hammerhead includes the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region from Ryukyu Island to New Caledonia and French Polynesia. The eastern Pacific range is from southern Baja, California (US) through Mexico, south to Peru. The great hammerhead is considered a highly migratory species within Annex I of the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea.


This large coastal/semi-oceanic shark is found far offshore to depths of 300 m as well as in shallow coastal areas such as over continental shelves and lagoons. The great hammerhead migrates seasonally, moving poleward to cooler waters during the summer months.

Sphyrna mokarran diagram

Great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran). Illustration courtesy FAO, Species Identification and Biodata

Distinguishing Characteristics

1. Head nearly straight and hammer-shaped with a prominent indentation at the midline

2. First dorsal fin is tall and curved

3. Pelvic fins have a curved rear margin



Sphyrna mokarran - Great Hammerhead

Great hammerhead. Illustration courtesy Bigelow and Schroeder (1948) FNWA

Distinctive Features
The great hammerhead is a very large shark with the characteristic hammer-shaped head from which it gets its common name. The font margin of the head is nearly straight with a shallow notch in the center in adult great hammerheads, distinguishing it from the smooth hammerhead and scalloped hammerhead. The first dorsal fin is very tall with a pointed tip and strongly falcate in shape while the second dorsal is also high with a strongly concave rear margin. The origin of the first dorsal fin is opposite or slightly behind the pectoral fin axil with the free rear tip falling short to above the origin of the pelvic fins. The rear margins of the pelvic fins are concave and falcate in shape, not seen in scalloped hammerhead (S. lewini). The posterior edge of the anal fin is deeply notched.

Juvenile and adult Great Hammerheads

Great hammerhead differences between the A. Juvenile and B. Adult head morphology. Illustration courtesy Bigelow and Schroeder (1948) FNWA

Juvenile morphology includes the front margin of the head being gently curved in contrast to the nearly straight margin in adult specimens.

Within the hammerhead family, several species are differentiated from each other by variations within the cephalophoil. The scalloped hammerhead (S. lewini) is distinguished as a smaller species with a rounded anterior margin and notch on the head. The smooth hammerhead (S. zygaena) has a broad, flat unnotched head. The smaller bonnethead (S. tiburo) is much easier to identify with a shovel-shaped head. Another distinguishing characteristic of the great hammerhead is the curved rear margins on the pelvic fins while the scalloped hammerhead (S. lewini) has straight posterior edges.

Comparing four Hammerheads

Comparison of hammerhead sharks: A. smooth hammerhead, B. scalloped hammerhead, C. great hammerhead, D. bonnethead. Photos © George Burgess

The dorsal side of the great hammerhead is dark brown to light grey or even olive in color fading to white on the underside. The fins lack markings in adults while the apex of the second dorsal fin may appear dusky in juveniles.

The teeth of this hammerhead are triangular and strongly serrated, but increasingly oblique toward the corners of the mouth. There are 17 teeth on either side of the 2-3 teeth at the symphysis in the upper jaw and 16 or 17 teeth on either side of the 1-3 teeth at the symphysis on the lower jaw.

Sphyrna mokarran - Great Hammerhead

Great hammerhead. Photo © Wes Pratt

The skin is covered by dermal denticles that are closely spaced, overlapping along the front and lateral margins. Each blade is diamond-shaped and smooth along the base. There are 3-5 ridges on each blade on small specimens and as many as 5 or 6 in larger individuals. The teeth along the posterior margin are short with the median tooth slightly longer than the other teeth.

Size, Age, and Growth
As the largest of the hammerheads, the great hammerhead averages over 500 pounds (230 kg). The world record great hammerhead was caught off Sarasota, Florida (US) weighing 991 pounds (450 kg). The largest reported length of a great hammerhead is 20 feet (6.1 m). Expected life span of this species is approximately 20-30 years of age.

In waters off Australia, males reach maturity at a length of 7.4 feet (2.25 m) corresponding to a weight of 113 pounds (51 kg) and females are mature at a total length of 6.9 feet (2.10 m) corresponding to a weight of 90 pounds (41 kg) (source: Stevens and Lyle 1989).

Great Hammerheads eat rays

The great hammerhead feeds on a variety of marine organisms including stingrays. Photo © George Ryschkewitsch

Food Habits
Great hammerheads are active predators, preying upon a wide variety of marine organisms, from invertebrates to bony fishes and sharks. A favorite prey item is the stingray, which is consumed along with the tail spine! Invertebrate prey include crabs, squid, octopus, and lobsters while commonly consumed bony fish are groupers, catfishes, jacks, grunts, and flatfishes. Great hammerheads have also been reported as cannibalistic, eating individuals of their own species. It feeds primarily at dusk along the seafloor as well as near the surface using its complex electro-sensory system to located prey.

As common with all hammerheads, this species is viviparous with nutrition provided through a yolk-sac placenta. Following a gestation period of approximately 11 months, birth occurs during the spring or summer in the Northern Hemisphere. The resulting litters range in size from 6 to 42 young with the pups measuring between 60 and 70 cm total length. The head shape of a young pup is more rounded than that of an adult, changing as it reaches maturity.

In contrast to most other species of sharks that reportedly mate at or near the bottom, the great hammerhead has been observed mating near the surface of the water. In one event reported from the Bahamas, mating sharks ascended, swimming slowly around each other until mating at the surface.

Sphyrna mokarran - Great Hammerhead

Great hammerhead. Photo © Don Nelson

Larger sharks will prey on juvenile and subadult great hammerheads, with no major predators of the adults of this species.

Copepods parasitize many species of shark with those found on great hammerheads including Alebion carchariae, A. elegans, Nesippus orientalis, N. crypturus, Eudactylina pollex, Kroyeria gemursa, and Nemesis atlantica.


The great hammerhead was originally described as Zygaena mokarran by German naturalist Eduard Rüppell in 1837, however he changed this name to the currently valid Sphyrna mokarran later that same year. The name Sphyrnatranslates from Greek to the English language "hammer", referring to the hammer-shaped head of this species. Synonyms used in past scientific literature include Sphyrna tudes Valenciennes 1822, Zygaena dissimilis Murray 1887 andSphyrna ligo Fraser-Brunner 1950.

There are approximately 10 related species of hammerheads throughout tropical and temperate regions including the bonnethead (Sphyrna tiburo), scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini), and smooth hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena).

Prepared by: Cathleen Bester