If “ninja lanternshark” sounds like something an 8-year-old might dream up, you would be right. After researcher Vicky Vásquez discovered a new species of black shark that glows in the dark, she turned to her young cousins for inspiration for the fish's common name. It's scientific name, however, is no less nerdy - Etmopterus benchley honors Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws.
The ninja lanternshark's common and scientific names aren't the only features that stray into the fantastical; it even looks as if it were designed by children. The small, deep-sea-dwelling sharks have jet-black skin and bulbous eyes, making them a fearsome sight for a fish that only grows to be about a foot-and-a-half long. As Vásquez tells Jason Bittel for Hakai Magazine, the ninja lanternsharks are stealthy, using glowing cells embedded in their skin to blend in with what little light penetrates the deep waters where they make their home, and also rendering them invisible from below.
Researchers first discovered the ninja lanternshark in 2010, but it remains relatively rare. So far only eight specimens have been studied, but after a year of meticulous study, Vásquez was confident that she had identified a previously-unknown species. Like any new discovery, the lanternshark needed a name, so Vásquez invited her young cousins, aged 8 to 14, to help her brainstorm a cool common moniker.
“They have all grown up being really interested in animals, especially sharks, so I knew if I gave them this opportunity they would be really excited,” Vásquez tells Benjamin Soloway for Foreign Policy. “We used a Google Hangout to have the conversation about what we wanted to name the shark and why.”
There are strict guidelines for creating a new animal’s official Latin name, but when it comes to making up a common name, there’s plenty of room to get creative. Vásquez worked with her cousins to come up with a name that fit to sneaky-looking shark, whittling the final choice down from the slightly more bombastic “Super Ninja Shark,” Miriam Kramer reports for Mashable.
"The common name we have suggested, Ninja Lanternshark, refers to the shark's color which is a uniform sleek black as well as the fact that it has fewer photophores [organs that emit light] than other species of lanternsharks," Vásquez tells Kramer. "Based on that, we felt those unique characteristics would make this species stealthy like a ninja.”
While the lanternshark’s official name, Etmopterus benchleyi, might not raise eyebrows in the same way, there’s a story behind that, too. Vásquez decided to take the opportunity to name the new fish after shark champion Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws. Soloway writes that Benchley became a staunch conservationist largely out of guilt for giving oceanic predators such a bad reputation.
The ninja lanternshark is one of more than 30 species of small dogfish, but it is the first of its kind to be discovered off the Central American coast. While Vásquez had enough specimens to determine that this was, in fact, a new species, there is still plenty that she and other researchers can learn from the little sharks.
“We don’t know a lot about lanternsharks. They don’t get much recognition compared to a great white,” Vásquez tells Bittel. “So when it came to this shark I wanted to give it an interesting story.”