Reputation: Great whites are man-eaters. They are also vengeful. Don't go in the water.

Reality: Great white sharks are not even white. They will occasionally attack humans but other sharks probably pose a greater threat. They are warm-blooded and give birth to live "pups", maybe as many as 10 at a time.

When it comes to animal stereotypes, there are few more powerful or more entrenched than the public image of Carcharodon carcharias.

They have been recorded dining out on a wide range of species, including whales, squid, turtles and occasionally penguins

It goes by several common names. The most widespread is "great white shark", but Australians call it the "white pointer" and scientists simply refer to the "white shark".

In fact, great white sharks are not white. The epithet is thought to have come about because these sharks are predominantly white in one circumstance: when they are lying dead, belly-up on the deck of a boat.

It would arguably be more appropriate to call this species the "black shark". They have a dark upper surface, which means their surface-dwelling prey struggle to spot them approaching from the murky depths.

Speaking of prey, they have been recorded dining out on a wide range of species, including whales, squid, turtles and occasionally penguins.

"If you make a list of everything that's been found in a white shark's stomach, you'd get a variety of things," says marine biologist George Burgess of the University of Florida in Gainesville. But what's clear is that their tastes change as they age.

They have a series of senses that are overlapping and complementary

"They are almost exclusively fish-eaters until they are 7, 8, 9 feet long," says Burgess. "As they get bigger and reach sexual maturity, they will begin to start eating mammal prey if they get the opportunity."

These older sharks prefer seals, sea lions and walruses. When they strike from below, at speed, white sharks can clear the surface by as much as 3m.

To locate their prey, white sharks use almost every trick in the book. "They have a series of senses that are overlapping and complementary," says Burgess.

For starters they have surprisingly nifty hearing.

In a 1963 study, researchers hung a speaker over the edge of their boat off Miami to see if they could attract sharks with sound. Low-frequency pulses, rather like those produced by a distressed fish, resulted in a rash of shark sightings.

All of those things come together making this a very, very efficient predator

No great white sharks were spotted in this study, but it's reasonable to assume they have good hearing too.

As a great white gets closer to its prey, its legendary sense of smell begins to kick in. A study of the brains of different species of shark shows that the great white's olfactory bulb is especially large.

Their vision is not bad, either. "They see contrasts particularly well," says Burgess.

They also have two less familiar senses. Their lateral lines, which run along their sides, can detect changes in water pressure that reveal their prey's movements. Once they are really close to their target, they can pick up electromagnetic fields.

"All of those things come together making this a very, very efficient predator," says Burgess. But they rarely apply their hunting skills to humans.

Burgess is the editor of the International Shark Attack File, a record of all known shark attacks going back to the 1500s.

If you can suppress your terror, they turn out to be rather wonderful

In 2013, the most recent year for which we have data, there were 76 unprovoked shark attacks around the world and 10 fatalities. Only one of these deaths was down to a great white. "White shark attacks are only a small proportion of the picture," says Burgess.

Over the decade from 2004 to 2013, the great white shark was responsible for an average of just seven unprovoked attacks and fewer than two fatalities a year.

Despite these facts, it is difficult to get beyond our fear of great white sharks. Jaws did too good a job of demonising them. But if you can suppress your terror, they turn out to be rather wonderful.

For instance, unlike most fish great white sharks can control their body temperature.

One mother shark was more than 5m long and was carrying 10 fully formed fetuses inside her

By persuading a shark to swallow a chunk of bait loaded with an acoustic transmitter, researchers were able to measure the animal's core body temperature and observe how it changed with depth. The shark managed to hold its temperature constant at around 25 °C, typically well over 10 °C higher than the water temperature.

A white shark can do this because its arteries and veins run parallel in several parts of its body. This means the heat generated by its muscles stays in the body rather than being lost to the ocean. This explains how the great white shark can operate in both warm and very cold waters.

In the last few decades we have also learned that great white sharks have a fascinating mode of reproduction. In this respect, they are oddly similar to humans, in that they give birth to live young.

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Over the 1980s and 1990s, scientists examined several pregnant females that had been caught by fishermen. One such mother shark, caught off Japan in 1992, was more than 5m long and was carrying 10 fully formed fetuses inside her, ranging from 1.3 to 1.5m long.

The unborn baby sharks' digestive tracts contained vast quantities of yolk. They had been eating unfertilised eggs released by their mother, in a benign form of cannibalism.

As a result, the embryos quickly put on vast amounts of weight. "They have this massive gut," says Burgess. "It looks like someone that's been eating far too much."