Common name: Thresher sharks



Easily recognised sharks with an extremely long scythe-like tail - as long as the rest of the body. Thresher sharks also have very long narrow pectoral fins and tiny second dorsal and anal fins.

These active, strong-swimming open-water sharks are found worldwide in tropical and temperate seas from coastal to open-ocean waters. Recent studies have shown that the Thresher Shark, Alopias vulpinus, has a specialised vascular system allowing it to maintain its body temperature above that of the surrounding water.

Cite this page as:
Dianne J. Bray, Thresher sharks, ALOPIIDAE in Fishes of Australia, accessed 27 May 2024,

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Family Taxonomy

A small family of large sharks with a single genus and three species, all found in Australian waters.

Family Distribution

Found worldwide in tropical to cool temperate oceanic and coastal waters.

Family Description

Easily recognised by their extremely long tails, large pectoral fins and very small second dorsal and anal fins.

Body stout, cylindrical with a long pointed snout, a large first dorsal fin, large pelvic fins, long narrow pectoral fins and a very long tail that is about as long as the body. Head short, mouth small, under snout; gill slits short, the last two over the pectoral-fin base; keels absent from sides of tail base.

Family Size

To 5.7 metres.

Family Colour

Oceanic sharks with a counter-shading colour pattern - dark on top and pale below, to camouflage themselves from predators and prey in the open ocean.

Family Feeding

Carnivores - use their long tails to stun their prey of pelagic schooling fishes, cephalopods and even sea birds.

Family Reproduction

Thresher sharks are aplacental viviparous - the embryos develop in a primitive uterus within the female, where they are nourished by yolk-filled egg capsules that are continually produced by the mother for the developing young to consume.

This form of intra-uterine (within-the-uterus) cannibalism, is known as oophagy or oviphagy. After a gestation period of about 9 months, up to 7 pups (average 2-4) measuring 114-160cm are born (Smith et al. 2008).

Family Commercial

All species are commercially fished throughout their range, and are also caught by recreational anglers.

Family Conservation

EPBC Act (Australia): Not listed.

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Assessed as VULNERABLE on the 2011 IUCN Red List of Threatened species. Thresher sharks are considered vulnerable due to their declining populations and low capacity to recover from over-fishing. There is little available information on thresher sharks in the Indo-West Pacific.

Family Remarks

Thresher sharks, like other mackeral sharks, have a highly-developed rete mirabile or heat exchange system around the brain and eyes. This 'brain-heater' system is thought to keep the brain and eyes considerably warmer than the surrounding water temperature during deep dives or in cold waters.

Family Biology


Dianne J. Bray

Family Resources


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Anderson, R.C. & Simpfendorfer, C.A. 2005. Indian Ocean, pp. 140-149. In: S.L. Fowler, M. Camhi, G.H. Burgess, G.M. Cailliet, S.V. Fordham, R.D. Cavanagh, C.A. Simpfendorfer & J.A. Musick (eds). Sharks, rays and chimaeras: the status of the chondrichthyan fishes. IUCN SSC Shark Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.

Compagno, L.J.V. 1984. FAO species catalogue. Vol. 4. Sharks of the world. An annotated and illustrated catalogue of shark species known to date. Part 1. Hexanchiformes to Lamniformes. FAO, Rome.

Compagno, L.J.V. 1990. Shark exploitation and conservation. In: H.L. Pratt, Jr., S.H. Gruber & T. Taniuchi (eds). Elasmobranchs as living resources: Advances in the biology, ecology, systematics and the status of the fisheries. NOAA Techncal Report. NMFS.

Compagno, L.J.V. 2001. Sharks of the world: An annotated and illustrated catalogue of shark species known to date. Volume 2. Bullhead, Mackerel and Carpet Sharks (Heterodontiformes, Lamniformes and Orectolobiformes). FAO. Rome, Italy.

Cortés, E. 2008. Comparative life history and demography of pelagic sharks, pp. 309-322. In: M. Camhi, E.K. Pikitch & E.A. Babcock (eds). Sharks of the Open Ocean. Blackwell Publishing.

Dulvy, N.K., Baum, J.K., Clarke, S., Compagno, L.J.V., Cortés, E., Domingo, A., Fordham, S., Fowler, S.L., Francis, M.P., Gibson, C., Martinez, J., Musick, J.A., Soldo, A., Stevens, J.D. & Valenti, S.V. 2008. You can swim but you can’t hide: the global status and conservation of oceanic pelagic sharks and rays. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 18(5): 459-482.

Gilmore, R.G. 1983. Observations on the embryos of the Longfin Mako, Isurus paucus, and the Bigeye Thresher, Alopias superciliosus. Copeia 1983(2): 375–382.

Gilmore, R.G. 1993. Reproductive biology of lamnoid sharks. Environmental Biology of Fishes 38: 95-114.

Goldman, K.J., Baum, J., Cailliet, G.M., Cortés, E., Kohin, S., Macías, D., Megalofonou, P., Perez, M., Soldo, A. & Trejo, T. 2009. Alopias vulpinus. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. <>. Downloaded on 14 January 2012.

Last, P.R. & Stevens, J.D. 2009. Sharks and Rays of Australia. Collingwood : CSIRO Publishing Australia Edn 2, 550 pp.

Maguire, J.-J., Sissenwine, M.P., Csirke, J., Grainger, R.J.R. & Garcia, S.M. 2006. The state of world highly migratory, straddling and other high seas fisheries resources and associated species. Fisheries Technical Report. FAO, Rome.

Patterson, J.C., Sepulveda, C.A. & Bernal, D. 2011. The vascular morphology and in vivo muscle temperatures of thresher sharks (Alopiidae). Journal of Morphology 272(11): 1353-1364

Reardon, M., Márquez, F., Trejo, T. & Clarke, S.C. 2009. Alopias pelagicus. In: IUCN 2011. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2011.2. <>. Downloaded on 14 January 2012.

Smith, S.E., Rasmussen, R.C., Ramon, D.A. & Cailliet, G.M. 2008. The biology and ecology of thresher sharks (Alopiidae). In: Camhi, M.D., Pikitch, E.K. & Babcock, E.A. (eds). Sharks of the Open Ocean: Biology, Fisheries and Conservation. Blackwell Publishing. Oxford, UK.

Sepulveda, C.A., Wegner, N.C., Bernal, D. & Graham, J.B. 2005. The red muscle morphology of the thresher sharks (family Alopiidae). Journal of Experimental Biology 208(22): 4255–4261.

Weng, K.C. & Block, B.A. 2004. Diel vertical migration of the Bigeye Thresher Shark (Alopias superciliosus), a species possessing orbital retia mirabilia. Fish. Bull. 102: 221–229.

White, W.T. 2008. Shark Families Heteroontidae to Pristiophoridae, pp. 32-100. In Gomon. M.F., Bray, D.J. & Kuiter, R.H (eds). Fishes of Australia's Southern Coast. Sydney : Reed New Holland 928 pp.