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Shark attacks in landlocked states? Yes, there have been shark bites in Kentucky, Missouri and New Mexico

Nature: Great white sharks
Nature: Great white sharks 02:41

Colorado Governor Jared Polis shared a fun fact on Twitter last week: "Colorado is tied for state with the least shark attacks!" While that might seem quite obvious for a landlocked state, the graphic Polis shared raised eyebrows. The shark attack map showed other landlocked states – including New Mexico, Missouri and Kentucky — did have at least one shark attack.

Polis' tweet gained more attention for what he didn't say. Of course Colorado has had no shark attacks — but what happened in the other states? "I have questions," one Twitter user replied.

"Uhm, I'm kinda confused about New Mexico, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. Where, exactly, are people being attacked by sharks in those states?" another wrote.

While Kentucky doesn't have an ocean, it does have aquariums. In 2006, at least 12 people at Kentucky's Newport Aquarium were bitten by sharks while at an exhibit that allows visitors to touch the animals, according to Shark Attack Data.

The site is a database of information from the Global Shark Attack File, compiled by the Shark Research Institute, which conducts peer-reviewed research on sharks. 

Underwater Times, a site that claims to be the "world's leading news source for the world underwater," also has data on the 12 shark bites at the Newport Aquarium. Both sites specify that injuries were not serious – and were similar to paper cuts.

Missouri's lone attack also occurred in captivity — in 1996, when a couple was performing at the St. Louis Boat and Sports Show. Kathi Peters, who was at the show with her husband, Marco, put her hand in a 9,000-gallon tank with six nurse sharks. She suffered from five puncture wounds to her hand, according to the Global Shark Attack File.

Sharks can actually appear in the wild in Missouri. According to a study published in Marine & Fishery Sciences, bull sharks can swim from oceans into rivers, like the Mississippi, which runs through Missouri. 

However, this is extremely rare, and only two bull sharks have been captured in the Mississippi River's upper portion during the entire 20th century – one in St. Louis, Missouri, near Rush Island Power Station in 1995, and one in Alton, Illinois in 1937, according to the study. 

And in Illinois, newspapers reported a boy was bitten by a bull shark while swimming in Lake Michigan in 1955. However, in 2016, local Chicago radio station WBEZ investigated the reported attack and could not confirm it actually happened.

In New Mexico, the state's lone shark attack happened to a diver at the ABQ BioPark, Albuquerque's aquarium, according to Shark Attack Data. Ken Pitts, 45, suffered two punctures on his forearm after colliding with a captive shark, but the bite was not fatal.

Similarly, Pennsylvania's sole shark attack occurred at the now-defunct Philadelphia Aquarium at Fairmount Water Works in 1961, according to Shark Attack Data. It was also not fatal. 

In 2020, there were 57 unprovoked shark bites on humans and 39 provoked bites globally, the Florida Museum of Natural History's International Shark Attack File reports. The worldwide total of confirmed unprovoked cases was lower than the most recent five-year (2015-2019) average, of 80 incidents annually. 

There were 13 shark-related fatalities in 2020 – 10 of which were confirmed to be unprovoked – which is above the annual global average of four unprovoked fatalities per year, according to the International Shark Attack File. 

The infamous graphic Polis shared on Twitter appears to come from RobsLink.com, a website of graphics created by Robert Allison, who compiled information from sharkattackfile.net to chart the shark attacks in all 50 states. Allison, whose website is dedicated to making such graphics on various topics, compiled the shark attack data in 2016. 

According to his map, 23 states have yet to experience shark attacks. 

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