Astonished scientists try to figure out what a giant Arctic shark was doing in significantly warmer waters thousands of miles south of its frigid home.
Researchers from Florida International University and the Belize Fisheries Department recently discovered a Greenland shark, which typically lives in the frigid waters of the Arctic, in the tropical waters of the Caribbean Sea, while working with local fishermen from Belize to tag tiger sharks. , according to a press release from the university.
The shark swam near the Belize Barrier Reef, the world’s second longest barrier reef, the scientists said. The discovery marks the first time a shark of its kind has been found in western Caribbean waters.
Devanshi Kasana, a marine biologist at FIU and a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s Predator Ecology and Conservation lab, first thought she was looking at a sixgill shark, known to live in the deep waters near coral reefs.
“I knew it was something out of the ordinary and so did the fishermen, who had never seen anything like it in all their combined years of fishing,” Kasana said in a statement.
Kasana then consulted with her advisor and other shark experts and texted a photo of the creature. The final determination was that it was “definitely” in the sleeper shark family due to its large size, and was most likely a Greenland shark or a hybrid between a Greenland shark and a Pacific sleeper shark, according to the FIU.
It’s unclear if the researchers were able to tag the shark.
“This finding is so exciting because it suggests that these ancient predators may roam the world’s oceans from pole to equator, but remain very deep in tropical waters,” Kasana, who is still in Belize, said in a statement by email. e-mail to ABC News. “It feels great to be a part of this and be a part of what could be the first step in protecting sleeper sharks in this region.”
Little is known about the Greenland shark. The half-blind shark lives off scavenging polar bear carcasses and can live for up to 250 and maybe even 500 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, making them the longest-lived vertebrates known to science.
Greenland sharks are also huge, reaching up to 7 meters in length and weighing up to 1.5 tons, according to National Geographic.
“Since little is known about them, this means that nothing can be definitively ruled out about the species,” the scientists said. “Greenland sharks can drag through the depths of the ocean all over the world.”
Greenland sharks, or Somniosus microcephalus, are on the International Union’s Red List of Threatened Species for Conservation of Nature as a vulnerable species. The biggest threats they face are climate change and severe weather, which is altering and shifting their habitats, and fishing and harvesting.
Hakarl, fermented Greenland shark or other sleeping shark, is a national dish of Iceland. Greenland shark meat is poisonous until dried and fermented for four or five months, giving off a strong smell and taste of ammonia.
Kasana stressed that the Greenland shark’s discovery was a collaborative effort between members of the Belize shark fishing community, the Belize Fisheries Department and FIU researchers.
The government of Belize recently declared three atolls, including Glover’s Reef, where the Greenland shark was found, and the deeper waters around it as protected areas for sharks. This statement will help keep animals, including undiscovered ones that may roam the waters around Glover’s Reef, safe, Kasana said.
“Great discoveries and conservation can happen when fishermen, scientists and government work together,” said Beverly Wade, director of the Blue Bond and Finance Permanence Unit in the office of the Prime Minister of Belize. “We can really improve what we can do individually, while also doing great conservation work and making amazing discoveries like this one.”