Ghost, Demon, and Cat Sharks Found

Editor’s note: Some commenters have been asking why scientists killed these sharks for their study. To clarify, the sharks were caught as bycatch during commercial fishing operations. The researchers got them afterwards.

You never know what you’ll find when you go rooting around in the dark—especially the deep, dark, remote portions of the sea.

Shark biologist Paul Clerkin conducted a survey in the southern Indian Ocean in 2012 that yielded rarely seen deep-sea sharks, including a possible eight new species. (See more photos of deep-sea creatures.)

Among the exotic finds were elusive 10-foot-long (3-meter-long) false catsharks (Pseudotriakis microdon), a new species of ghost shark sporting what look like buck teeth, and a new species of filetail catshark.

The filetail catsharks were especially memorable for Clerkin, a graduate student at the Moss Landing Marine Laboratory in central California. “They are by far the most adorable shark ever created,” he said.

The catsharks are one foot (0.3 meters) long when fully grown, and have soft, chubby stomachs. “They’d be rolling back and forth on their fat bellies [on the ship], which is really cute, but hard when you’re trying to take a picture of them,” Clerkin said.

For his survey, Clerkin joined a commercial fishing boat trawling the waters above seamounts—or undersea mountains—for fish like orange roughy. He collected samples of sharks caught as bycatch in the ship’s nets, which the fishermen lowered to about 6,600 feet (2,000 meters). “We got a lot of weird stuff,” said Clerkin. (Watch video of a ‘prehistoric’ shark attacking deep bait.)

The remote location contributed to the high number of unknown or rarely seen sharks fishermen pulled up. It took about five or six days to reach the fishing grounds from a port on the island of Mauritius (map), east of Madagascar.

“[This] area is one of the final frontiers for sharks,” Clerkin noted. Fishermen have operated in this part of the southern Indian Ocean for years, he said. “But this is the first time someone’s gone out there to document [the sharks].”

Shark biologist Paul Clerkin confers with colleagues at the Albion Fisheries Research Center on Mauritius about a shark he brought back from his survey.

Clerkin collected a few representatives of each shark species he encountered while recording data like length, gender, and sexual maturity. Clerkin’s work is part of a larger project called Assembling the Tree of Life, which is sponsored by the U.S. National Science Foundation and aims to figure out the evolutionary origins of every living thing.

“I took back a ton of sharks,” he said. The shark biologist ended up mailing about 1.3 tons of samples to laboratories and specialists in the U.S. via air freight.

Clerkin plans on naming at least one of the new species after his graduate adviser and a second one after his mother. “[Maybe] save it for a Mother’s Day gift or something,” he said. (Related: “From Darth Vader to Jelly Doughnuts, Weird Species Names Abound.”)

Changing Planet


Meet the Author
Jane J. Lee is a news writer and editor at National Geographic.