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The Arctic Shark, Long Thought Extinct, Has Appeared in the Caribbean.

This unusual and long-lived shark species has been spotted far from its typical habitat. This month, marine biologists announced the first-ever sighting of a sleeper shark in the waters of the western Caribbean, close to Belize. This is the most recent evidence suggesting that these mysterious animals, which are usually only spotted in the Arctic, may be more widespread and common in the ocean than was previously believed.

FIU researchers made the discovery in April of this year. At Glover’s Reef, a coral atoll in Belize, the researchers and local fishermen were attempting to tag tiger sharks when they stumbled upon something unexpected: a small-eyed, greyish, roughly 11-foot-long fish. The creature was unlike any fish the crew had ever seen when it was brought to the surface, moving at a glacial pace.

Devanshi Kasana, a Ph.D. candidate in the Predator Ecology and Conservation lab at Florida International University, said in a university statement, “I knew it was something unusual and so did the fishers, who hadn’t seen anything quite like it in all their combined years of fishing.”

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Photo: Shutterstock

Storms were approaching, so the crew quickly released their catch, but not before taking photos of it. Later analysis by specialists confirmed their suspicion that they had encountered a sleeper shark. This month, their research appears in Marine Biology.

In fact, the name “sleeper shark” comes from the animal’s tendency to take things slowly. Even in the deep water environment in which they typically live, they move very slowly and use very little energy when hunting or scavenging for food, often catching it while its prey is asleep. It is believed that the Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus), the most well-known species of sleeper shark, can live up to 400 years, making it one of the longest-lived animals on Earth. However, because these sharks’ natural habitat is so far from human activity, there have never been any confirmed attacks on humans. Because of the deep-sea adaptations they share with other shark species, their bodies are typically toxic to us as well. Despite this, the people of Iceland have discovered a way to eat Greenland sharks, and the resulting delicacy is highly prized. Researchers believe they have in their possession a Greenland shark or the offspring of a Greenland and a related species called Somniosus pacificus due to the shark’s large size.

Despite the widespread belief that this species spends most of its time in the icy waters of the Arctic, there is evidence that at least some populations migrate; in recent years, this shark has been spotted in the Caribbean and other tropical locations. However, this most recent sighting complicates matters further, as the team was much nearer the shore than previous teams have been when they stumbled upon their tropical sleeper.

However, there is a plausible source of cold temperatures for these sharks to live comfortably because the reef has waters that descend as far as 9,500 feet. It’s possible that these sharks are more widespread than we realise, given how little we know about them. They intend to keep researching the deep sea fish of Belize. No one is holding their breath for another sleeper shark sighting, but from now on, everyone will have special tags to keep tabs on any specimens they come across.

The shark, which measures between 10 and 11 feet in length, was discovered in Belize’s Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, a coral atoll. PhD student Kasana from FIU’s Predator Ecology and Conservation Lab and a group of Belizean fishermen were tagging tiger sharks when they came across the strange visitor.

The shark was ultimately identified as a member of the Sleeper shark family, and more specifically, as a Greenland shark or a hybrid of a Greenland shark and a Pacific sleeper shark.
Little is known about Greenland sharks despite the fact that they can live for 400 years or more. Some researchers have even proposed that these animals have the longest life span of any vertebrate species studied so far.

In contrast to popular belief, polar bear scavengers do not prefer warmer climates and can be found not only in the Arctic and North Atlantic but also in the Caribbean.
Sleeper sharks “may be more common and widespread at depth in the tropics than available records indicate,” Kasana and her team concluded. Director of the Blue Bond and Finance Permanence Unit in the Office of the Prime Minister of Belize Beverly Wade said, “Great discoveries and conservation can happen when fishermen, scientists, and the government work together.” As a group, we can accomplish much more than any of us could on our own, and we can make incredible discoveries like this one while doing important conservation work.
Kasana’s research was published in the Marine Biology journal.

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