GLOVER’S REEF, Belize – Spotting sharks in western Caribbean waters is not uncommon, but this encounter was a first of its kind.
A half-blind shark, which normally lives in frigid Arctic waters, was discovered in an unexpected place after a long night of fishing on a coral reef off Belize.
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Devanshi Kasana, a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University’s Predator Ecology and Conservation lab, worked with local Belize fishermen to tag tiger sharks when the rather sluggish creature was held.
As daylight came and the storms gathered on the horizon, the fishermen made the final check of their lines. On the other side of one was not a tiger shark, but rather something that looked ancient—ancient, even—and more like an elongated, smooth stone that had come to life. Its blunt snout and small pale bluish eyes led scientists to think it was a member of the sleeper shark family.
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“At first I was sure it was something else, like a sixgill shark known from deep waters near coral reefs,” Kasana said. “I knew it was something unusual, and so did the fishermen, who had never seen anything like it in all their combined years of fishing.”
Kasana rushed to share the news with her advisor and director of Sharks & Rays Conservation Research at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. It was soon determined that it was most likely a Greenland shark or a hybrid between the Greenland shark and the Pacific sleeper shark, due to its large size.
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According to the lab, Greenland sharks remain a bit of a “science riddle.”
What is known about them is that they tend to be seen in the frigid waters of the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans. The slow-moving species also grows slowly. They capture polar bear carcasses and are estimated to live for over 400 years — giving them the special designation of the longest-living vertebrate known to science.
According to scientists, Greenland sharks around the world could drag through the depths of the oceans. So are tropical areas, but at greater depths where they can find their favorite cold water.
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Kasana said the nearly 9,500-foot waters off Glover’s Reef Atoll, where she and the fishermen found the shark, were deep and cold enough for a Greenland shark to thrive.
While the chances of catching another sleeper shark in those waters may be rare, they will be prepared. One of the world’s top experts on Greenland sharks gave the team four satellite tags. This brings them one step closer to discovering how these sharks can live in the tropics.
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