After spending nearly three years in a freezer and several months touring the globe, a tiny but fierce-looking celebrity has made its way home to Louisiana.
An extraordinarily rare baby pocket shark that was discovered deep in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 arrived back at a Tulane University lab in Belle Chasse on Tuesday.
Measuring 5.5 inches long, the infant specimen looks something like a miniature sperm whale with a bristling set of teeth and a light, blue-gray complexion.
But that’s not what makes it so spectacular. The shark has spent the past several months being poked and prodded by scientists around the world because it’s the second of its kind ever found.
“He’s pretty important,” said Michael H. Doosey, a Tulane University biologist who co-authored a study in a zoological journal identifying the shark after it was discovered during a research expedition. “He’s been in New York, in Washington, D.C., in the Smithsonian for World Ocean Day ... and now he’s finally come back.”
Doosey and other scientists welcomed the pocket shark home to Tulane’s Biodiversity Research Institute on Tuesday. That’s where it will remain, being examined along with roughly 7,000 other species in the Royal D. Suttkus Fish Collection.
In the coming months, researchers like Mark Grace, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration fisheries biologist, are hoping to finally get some answers about the elusive pocket shark, which remains one of the ocean’s most intriguing mysteries.
“I can’t imagine a shark having more stuff of such interest in such a small space,” Grace said. “I think it leaves you with more questions than answers.”
The first pocket shark, which sits in a Russian museum, was discovered 36 years ago in the Pacific Ocean. Because of the prohibitive cost at that time of tests like genetic analysis, very little was learned about the shark.
One of the most pressing questions has to do with the reason for the shark’s name. Like a kangaroo, a pocket shark comes equipped with tiny pockets.
The orifices, located on each side above the pectoral fins, aren’t made for carrying young, however. Scientists speculate that they could be used to excrete pheromones or some kind of glowing fluid. But they just don’t know.
“No other shark has a gland like that,” Doosey said. “We don’t know its function. And we want to know what it’s for.”
Those answers may come soon, thanks to global partners who have been researching the shark, taking high-tech digital images of its insides and other measurements.
Partners include the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.; the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City; and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, in Grenoble, France.
“Hopefully, we can find its place in the genetic sequence,” Grace said. “That’s one of the things that doesn’t get highlighted a lot.”
The new specimen was accidentally found during a 2010 NOAA expedition examining the feeding habits of sperm whales.
Although the shark was alive when it was caught in the ocean, it was dead when it was first examined shortly after the catch.
Grace stumbled upon the specimen years later, bagged among the frozen catch collected from the NOAA study. At that point, he said, he clipped a bit from the shark’s fin for testing.
Already, scientists have gleaned much from the Gulf of Mexico pocket shark, just because of the way it was handled. For instance, scientists were able to place the specimen into its proper genus, Mollisquama.
Genetic analysis also showed that the pocket shark is closely related to cookiecutter sharks. Cookiecutters and pocket sharks fall into the same shark family, Dalatiidae.
That makes sense, Doosey said Tuesday, because the pocket shark’s jaws are “massive” for an animal that’s only 5.5 inches long.
Tests have yet to confirm it, but Doosey thinks it’s possible that pocket sharks, like cookiecutters, might use the jaws to latch onto and eat flesh from larger prey, such as fish or squid.
But even after those questions are answered, there will be much more to learn, according to the Biodiversity Research Institute’s director, Hank Bart. In fact, Bart estimates there are hundreds of other species out in the Gulf that scientists like himself know very little about.
“What I like to tell people is that this find tells us how much we don’t know about the Gulf of Mexico,” Bart said Tuesday. “And every time we go down to that depth, we end up making a lot of discoveries.”