Functional morphology of the feeding apparatus, feeding constraints, and suction performance in the nurse shark Ginglymostoma cirratum

J Morphol. 2008 Sep;269(9):1041-55. doi: 10.1002/jmor.10626.


The nurse shark, Ginglymostoma cirratum, is an obligate suction feeder that preys on benthic invertebrates and fish. Its cranial morphology exhibits a suite of structural and functional modifications that facilitate this mode of prey capture. During suction-feeding, subambient pressure is generated by the ventral expansion of the hyoid apparatus and the floor of its buccopharyngeal cavity. As in suction-feeding bony fishes, the nurse shark exhibits expansive, compressive, and recovery kinematic phases that produce posterior-directed water flow through the buccopharyngeal cavity. However, there is generally neither a preparatory phase nor cranial elevation. Suction is generated by the rapid depression of the buccopharyngeal floor by the coracoarcualis, coracohyoideus, and coracobranchiales muscles. Because the hyoid arch of G. cirratum is loosely connected to the mandible, contraction of the rectus cervicis muscle group can greatly depress the floor of the buccopharyngeal cavity below the depressed mandible, resulting in large volumetric expansion. Suction pressures in the nurse shark vary greatly, but include the greatest subambient pressures reported for an aquatic-feeding vertebrate. Maximum suction pressure does not appear to be related to shark size, but is correlated with the rate of buccopharyngeal expansion. As in suction-feeding bony fishes, suction in the nurse shark is only effective within approximately 3 cm in front of the mouth. The foraging behavior of this shark is most likely constrained to ambushing or stalking due to the exponential decay of effective suction in front of the mouth. Prey capture may be facilitated by foraging within reef confines and close to the substrate, which can enhance the effective suction distance, or by foraging at night when it can more closely approach prey.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Electromyography
  • Feeding Behavior*
  • Female
  • Head / anatomy & histology*
  • Jaw / anatomy & histology
  • Jaw / physiology
  • Male
  • Mouth / anatomy & histology*
  • Mouth / physiology
  • Muscle, Skeletal / anatomy & histology*
  • Muscle, Skeletal / physiology
  • Predatory Behavior
  • Sharks / anatomy & histology*
  • Sharks / physiology
  • Skull / anatomy & histology*
  • Skull / physiology
  • Sucking Behavior