This incredibly rare prehistoric shark made headlines not long ago when researchers found a specimen off the Portuguese coast. No one knows why this species has managed to survive for so long, but one thing is for sure: the frilled shark really does look like it got stuck here from a different era.
According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the frilled shark (Chlamydoselachus anguineus) is classified as “Least Concern”, meaning that the species has been assessed as being at least risk of extinction. However, we don’t know exactly how many of them are left in the oceans. Since they are so rarely seen, it is impossible to estimate their population status. In fact, scientists hadn’t seen the shark in its natural habitat until 2004, despite it being discovered in the latter half of the 19th century.
The frilled shark lives between 390 and 4,200 feet below the surface, and as with other deep-dwelling animals, this makes finding them much more difficult. Although they can be found in many different areas around the globe, their distribution appears to be “patchy”. Some of the areas where you can see frilled shark (if you can swim that deep) include Suruga Bay in Japan near the coasts of New Zealand and Australia, or in the Atlantic Ocean between Norway and Namibia.
The frilled shark is quite unusual compared to other sharks; it has more primitive features and appearance (hence the name living fossil), with a long, slender body and a snake-like head. It’s not a particularly good swimmer, and its bite force isn’t all that strong either, but perhaps what most sets it apart from all other shark species is its teeth. Its jaw is lined with hundreds and hundreds of backwards-facing trident-shaped teeth, each forked into three nasty teeth. This configuration helps the animal to grab and devour its prey in sudden lunges.
David A. Ebert, director of the Pacific Shark Research Center, had a literal first-hand experience with a frilled shark’s nightmarish jaw. – “I can tell you from trapping my fingers in the teeth, you can only go back one way and that is inwards towards the mouth and then outwards. It didn’t feel good, I can tell you that.”
And these teeth are not only good for grabbing prey, but also for attracting it. In contrast to the shark’s dark brown or grayish skin, “the shiny teeth can serve almost as a lure to bring in prey that see this light color,” he said. “And when they realize, Oh, that’s a shark’s teeth, they’re very close and the shark is able to ambush them at that point.”
“It’s almost like when you pull out of a parking exit and they have the spikes that say, ‘Don’t back up,'” he added. “This is what happens when these things catch prey.”
The sharks’ diet consists mainly of squid, bony fish, and occasionally other sharks. Thanks to their very long jaws, they are capable of eating prey larger than their own size.
On average, they measure between 3-5 feet, but their bodies can reach up to 6.4 feet in length, with females being slightly longer. Scientists still have a lot to learn about the species and therefore their lifespan is unknown, but they estimate they can live up to 25 years.
In 2007, a frilled shark, caught by a Japanese fisherman on the surface of the water, was exposed in a marine park in Japan. Sadly, it died after just a few hours of captivity, which goes to show just how fragile the creature is when it’s away from its natural habitat.
Interestingly, these animals hold the world record for the longest gestation period in the animal kingdom, lasting 42 months. In comparison, the elephant, as a silver medalist, has a gestation period of only 18 to 22 months. Shark pups develop inside the female and are only born when they are equipped to survive on their own. Through this method, highly developed pups are more likely to survive after birth.
Even if the shark is not at risk, according to the IUCN, overfishing leads to a decrease in the food supply for these sharks and, in most cases, they are trapped in fishing nets, which can be a threat to the species . Especially since frilled shark babies take so long to develop, the accidental capture of female sharks can overwhelm their numbers.