ZOO-ology column: Goblin shark may sneak up on you

Nov. 4, 2012 at 5:04 a.m.

Goblin sharks are a rare species.

Goblin sharks are a rare species.

By Judie FarnsworthIt's a most bizarre-looking creature living deep near the ocean floor, beyond where humans would go.

It's rarely seen so there are no estimates of numbers.

It's time to meet the goblin shark. Yes, there is such a creature, and it's sometimes called a vampire shark. The association with a vampire has nothing to do with diet but, like vampires, the goblin shark doesn't like to be exposed to sunlight.

First sighted in 1898 off the coast of Japan, it caused quite a stir. It resembled shark fossils dating back more than 100 million years. Goblin sharks are classified as living fossils.

Since then, only about 50 have been caught in various locations including the Gulf of Mexico, the California coast, Portugal, Australia and Japan. The last sighting was in Tokyo Bay in 2007.

The scientific name of the species is Mitsukurina owstoni, and it is definitely not just another pretty face.

A goblin shark averages around 12 feet and 400 pounds. It has grayish to pink-looking skin. The skin is rather transparent, and the pink is actually blood vessels that show through.

The most unnerving part of the goblin is its head. One writer described it as "something from a Picasso painting." There are beady little eyes and a huge, flat, overhanging snout, sometimes with a sword-like projection. Retractable jaws lie beneath the snout, looking totally out of proportion.

Double sets of ligaments allow extending and retracting the jaws for feeding. There are three rows of crooked, needle-like teeth.

Sharks have an electroreception sense that lets them pick up weak electrical impulses from contracting muscles of living creatures.

The flat snout of the goblin is lined with sensors that track a potential meal in the darkness of the depths. The retractable jaws snatch it up.

Their main foods are thought to be fish, rays, squid, mollusks and shrimp.

Equally fascinating is the fact that in spite of its size, the goblin is pretty sneaky, and one of the reasons is its liver. The liver, which stores oil, takes up enough room to make it almost as dense as water. Large livers are often found in species that don't eat often. They may live off the oil between meals. Lots of flabby skin and mushy muscles are also a help with buoyancy. The goblin can float around without much movement and slide right up to its meal undetected - or wait in the dark for an unsuspecting dinner.

Sources: sharks-world.com



Judie Farnsworth is a longtime volunteer at the Texas Zoo specializing in educational programs.



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