How a public appeal and a piece of coincidence are helping British scientists uncover the shark’s mysteries Science and technology news
Thanks to a fluke and the social media page of a Cornish fishing village, British scientists have been given the first opportunity to study one of the world’s largest, most elusive and longest-lived animals.
The body of a four-metre-long bowhead shark has been recovered from the sea off Newlyn in west Cornwall – in one of only a handful of recordings of the animal in British waters.
The slow-growing, deep-sea shark lives in Arctic seas and probably has the longest lifespan of any vertebrate, living between 250 and 500 years.
How rare are these sharks in the UK?
This is only the second Greenland shark to be recovered from British waters.
The other, which was stranded in 2013, is now kept at the Natural History Museum in London.
The opportunity to perform an autopsy is therefore an “extraordinary” opportunity, experts say.
“Of course it’s sad to study a dead animal,” says Rob Deaville, who directs the Cetaceans Stranding Program at the Zoological Society of London.
“But this gives us the opportunity to study creatures that we don’t normally have access to.”
What killed the shark – and how old was it?
The first investigation could not explain why the shark died, although there were indications of an infection.
Accurately aging an animal as long-lived as a Greenland shark requires special carbon dating techniques, but given its size, this shark is believed to be less than 150 years old — far from reaching its prime.
The team that performed the autopsy collected a series of samples to examine the shark’s life history, diet, exposure to pollution and genetic samples to study its evolution.
“This will feed into research into his life for years to come,” Mr Deaville said, “not just how he died.”
“Could people please keep their eyes peeled for a DEAD SHARK?!!”
But they almost missed the opportunity to study the shark in full if it weren’t for the person who spotted it first.
Wildlife biologist Rosie Woodroffe was walking her dog Beluga on Newlyn Beach on Sunday when she saw the stranded animal and quickly recognized it as a Greenland shark.
But before anyone could come and recover the giant, he was washed back into the sea.
“I was gutted when the tide took it away,” said Ms. Woodroffe, a professor at the Department of Zoology.
She posted on the fishing port’s social media page: “Could people please keep their eyes peeled for a DEAD SHARK?!!”
And the next day, a local boat tour company recognized the rare ocean liner and towed its remains ashore.