Were Scientists Duped by a Plastic Shark Toy?
Researchers withdrew a report of a rare and elusive goblin shark spotted in Greece after their peers raised concerns about the alleged discovery
A fishy controversy is dividing the field of marine biology: A group of scientists says an elusive goblin shark was spotted for the first time in the Mediterranean Sea, but their peers argue the team was likely duped by a plastic toy.
The dramatic saga began in August 2020, when a citizen scientist named Giannis Papadakis reported that a well-preserved, dead goblin shark had washed ashore on a beach in Greece—a place with no prior records of these little-known creatures.
Goblin sharks are mysterious and rarely seen fish that generally live thousands of feet beneath the ocean’s surface. Their appearance only adds to their mystique: The animals have long, shovel-shaped snouts, fearsome teeth and mouths that can protrude or retract depending on the scenario. Scientists have more questions than answers about these spooky-looking swimmers, though they have spotted them in parts of the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, per Gizmodo’s Lauren Leffer.
Papadakis placed the shark on some rocks, took a photo and sent the image to a group of scientists. In May 2022, based only on that image and a brief description from Papadakis, the researchers included the shark sighting in a scientific paper about various species found for the first time in the Mediterranean.
That’s when the situation started to take a turn. The paper, which was published in the journal Mediterranean Marine Science, attracted attention from various shark experts, who began to share their doubts about the legitimacy of the goblin shark discovery.
Photos of a plastic goblin shark toy that looked suspiciously similar to the specimen spotted in Greece made the rounds on social media. Some internet sleuths even went so far as to make detailed comparisons of the toy shark and the supposed real shark, pointing out similarities such as what appears to be a plastic mold seam running next to the mouth.
An update to the "did someone present a photo of a toy as evidence of a range extension of a rare species" saga:— Dr. David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) March 14, 2023
The comment: https://t.co/JmVFKFD3xX
Author's reply to the comment: https://t.co/8oHEUXvgEd pic.twitter.com/OVYpQEt9Ay
In November, shark researchers who were not involved with the original paper banded together to publish a comment about it in the same journal. They listed ten reasons why they doubted the original claim, including the Mediterranean specimen’s protruding jaws, the number of gill slits and the length and shape of the fins. They also took issue with the fact that the researchers only included one photo of the shark in the paper.
“We have doubts that the specimen … is a natural specimen,” they wrote. “We would like to encourage the authors to provide additional evidence … to strengthen their hypothesis.”
Folks https://t.co/ViIsSoEn3t pic.twitter.com/N7fM0OooIP— Dr. David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter) March 15, 2023
The original researchers responded by writing their own rebuttal comment, in which they doubled down on their original claim. However, they did decrease their size estimate for the shark—from 80 centimeters (31.5 inches) to between 17 and 20 centimeters (about 6.5 to 8 inches)—and suggested instead that the small specimen could be an embryo. But that explanation didn’t satisfy the skeptics, either—in fact, it only added more fuel to the fire.
“This for me was the key thing that just wasn’t right,” says Will White, senior curator of the Australian National Fish Collection, to Live Science’s Sascha Pare. “A 17-centimeter-long specimen, which this is reported to be, would look very different to a newborn-sized specimen. It would be a lot less formed and have very thin translucent skin.”
The long back-and-forth came to a head this week, when the original scientists retracted both the goblin shark entry from their initial paper and their rebuttal comment. As Joanna Thompson reports for the Daily Beast, the original authors still believe the goblin shark was real and squarely pin the blame on their skeptical peers.
“Even though we have every reason to assume that the finding was authentic (several Mediterranean shark experts and [two] anonymous peer reviewers accepted and supported publication of this paper!), other colleagues caused a completely unethical controversy and claimed that the specimen was a discarded plastic figurine,” writes Frithjof Kuepper, one of the original paper’s authors and a marine biodiversity researcher at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, in an email to the Daily Beast. “In order to avoid further damage and given that the specimen had not been conserved by the citizen scientist … we decided to retract the article.”
The researchers who criticized the original paper again passed the blame, this time to the journal that published it. They say the incident exemplifies broader problems within the scientific peer review process.
“The problem and responsibility lies with the editor of the journal and the reviewers,” says rebuttal co-author Jürgen Pollerspöck, an independent shark researcher and the editor of the Shark References database, to the New York Times’ Annie Roth.