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This Tiny, Bulbous-Nosed Shark Glows in the Dark

After 17 years of study, scientists finally confirm that the oddball creature is a new species

Etmopterus lailae (Florida Atlantic University )
smithsonian.com

A new (and tiny) species of shark is making waves on the internet. The mini shark sports a massive, bulbous nose and—most exciting of all—it glows in the dark.

Seventeen years ago, Stephen M. Kajiura and his colleagues submitted a paper about the deep-sea lanternshark for publication. But the researchers were surprised when reviewers suggested that the species could be new to science. Now, many measurements later, as Laura Geggel writes for LiveScience, the little sharks are officially a new species, dubbed Etmopterus lailae.

The tiny beasts—weighing in at roughly two pounds and measuring up to a foot in length—were collected from 1,000 feet deep off the coast of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. To confirm the shark was indeed a new species, the researchers needed to take detailed measurements and observations of its teeth, intestines, bones, and external markings. Then they had to compare these measurements to other lanternsharks around the world, reports Sarah Gibbons for National GeographicThey found that the the reviewers were right: their big-nosed critter significantly differed from the others.

“The unique features and characteristics of this new species really sets it apart from the other Lanternsharks,” Kajiura, now a professor of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University says in a press release. “For one thing, it has a strange head shape and an unusually large and bulgy snout where its nostrils and olfactory organs are located. These creatures are living in a deep sea environment with almost no light so they need to have a big sniffer to find food.”

As Geggel reports, the shark is named after Laila Mostello-Wetherbee, a shark fan and daughter of Brad Wetherbee, co-author of the study published in the journal Zootaxa.

While the researchers have learned a lot from the specimens, there is still a lot to figure out. One big mystery is why these sharks, and other deep sea species, are bioluminescent. As Gibbons reports, a recent study suggests that up to 75 percent of ocean creatures have some degree of bioluminescence.

In the case of the sharks, researchers have a few guesses about the purpose of the light. Glowing lights may attract prey or camouflage the creatures. Perhaps light can be used to scare off predators or even help sharks recognize members of their own species for mating. A study of catsharks last year suggested that their rich biofluorescent patterns could make the otherwise homely looking creatures visible to one another.

Whatever the cause, it’s worth celebrating the big-schnozzed new shark. “There are only about 450 known species of sharks worldwide and you don’t come across a new species all that often,” Kajiura says in the release. “A large part of biodiversity is still unknown, so for us to stumble upon a tiny, new species of shark in a gigantic ocean is really thrilling.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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