Imagine you’re swimming in the ocean when you feel a sharp pain in your leg. When you look down, you notice a small, oval-shaped plug of flesh missing. Blood streams out of the wound, drawing large predators from miles around who soon consume your woefully ill-equipped body. According to researchers from NOAA and Tulane, you may have encountered a pocket shark.
Don’t get your hopes up, though. Scientists say they’ve come across just the second known specimen of the incredibly rare species.
“This record of such an unusual and extremely rare fish is exciting, but its also an important reminder that we still have much to learn about the species that inhabit our oceans,” said Mark Grace of NOAA Fisheries’ Pascagoula, Miss., Laboratory.
Amazingly, scientists weren’t looking for pocket sharks when they noticed the latest specimen. In fact, it wasn’t even found in the ocean, technically speaking. In 2010, a NOAA ship was collecting samples off the coast of Louisiana with the intent of studying whale feeding patterns. The specimen was only discovered recently when sorting through the haul, nearly five years later.
What puzzles scientists is that the most recent specimen gives no clues as to the pocket shark’s usual habitat. The first specimen was found very far away, off the coast of Peru over 30 years ago. What they do know is that this example is a juvenile male, only about five and a half inches long. They noted an unhealed umbilical scar, which may indicate complications at birth.
“Discovering him has us thinking about where mom and dad may be, and how they got to the Gulf,” Grace said.
While the shark is indeed small enough to fit in your pocket, it gets its name from an orifice located behind its pectoral fin. As for that orifice’s purpose, scientists haven’t yet had enough exposure to the species to know for sure. Genetic analysis revealed that pocket sharks are closely related to the kitefin and cookie cutter species – the latter known for using its uniquely shaped jaws to take oblong chunks out of the skins of submarines. Pocket sharks, the researchers believe, may behave similarly.
The new finding has already bolstered biologists’ understanding of the species. The latest specimen displays glands along its abdomen not seen in the 1979 specimen, for instance.