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Angry shark. Photo: © 2012 Grant Peters. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution License.

Massive Shark-Eating Creature is Still at Large

Last week, I wrote about the mysterious creature off the coast of Australia that had gobbled up a nine-foot great white shark.

The gruesome story of Shark Alpha will be told in the Smithsonian’s upcoming Hunt for the Super Predator documentary, which will most likely conclude by suggesting that a larger great white shark could have done the deed. This prompted several national science blogs—which had gotten wind of the video and brought it to my attention—to declare the mystery solved. NBC News published an especially skeptical take on the story, which I’m inclined to sum up as “grumble grumble grumble, it was obviously a shark, why do you consider this newsworthy, you’re not even scientists, grumble grumble grumble.” And that’s a perfectly valid point of view, especially if you believe science is something about which the general public should have little knowledge or interest.

But for those of you who believe “best explanation I’ve heard so far” and “only explanation I’m willing to entertain” are not necessarily the same thing, I’m pleased to report that my friend Bruce Morgan Jr., an independent scholar, contacted Dave Riggs—who collected this information in the first place—and discovered some interesting facts:

  • The tag, though secure, was external. My previous belief that the predator couldn’t have been a great white shark was based on what I believe to be an animation error from the clip shown above, which seemed to show a consistent 46°F pre-gobbling, regardless of depth. As it happens, the tag was not embedded in the shark’s muscle tissue. Since 46°F was the actual water temperature, a 78°F belly temperature for a great white shark implies a 32°F difference between the predator’s internal temperature and the water—more than the 25°F maximum most sources predict for a great white shark, but within the realm of possibility.
  • There were “erratic temperature readings just prior to the tag’s ingestion.” This also didn’t show up in the animation, and it might add layers to our story.
  • There’s a “known hydrocarbon seep” beneath Alpha Shark’s final known location, with “an enormous aggregation of marine species” nearby. If you went looking for a location where a giant shark-eating critter might plausibly be, this would be on the list.

So was this very large great white shark eaten by an even larger great white shark? As far as some people are concerned, the answer is an easy yes. As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out; until I see a stronger case that the culprit was a great white shark (and the Smithsonian documentary may help provide one), I’m not inclined to compress this ellipse into a period.

Think this is an open-and-shut case? Have your own theories as to what might have eaten the shark? You can share your thoughts below.

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  • Bernie

    It was a giant squid.

  • Well said Tom, very well said.

  • Jim Nelson

    A whale (killer or sperm) seems like a distinct possibility as the culprit but their internal body temperatures might be too high to align with the recorded temperature.

  • BruceWM

    Great followup, Tom. I think the simplest explanation is a shark, but I’m not totally convinced. There isn’t enough evidence to say that for sure and some of that evidence calls it into question. The “erratic temperature readings” give me a little tingle of the spine.

    I’m still crossing off known cetaceans from my list of possibilities. The steady 78 degree temp is well below the 90 to 102 degree body temps in their guts. This was either something massive enough to hold its internal temp from the surface, or something between warm and cold blooded. It was probably not a carnivorous marine echidna, but reference a TV movie named “The Bermuda Depths” that haunted my nightmares for a while in 1978. Don’t watch it, just reference it. A modern day example of convergent evolution wouldn’t be impossible. 15 meter, 20 tonne Liopleurodon-like critter, anyone? Interestingly, there is news out today about dinosaurs being between warm and cold blooded. Does anyone know the term for an animal that is between an “endotherm” and an “ectotherm?”

    Then, let’s say it was “just” a 3 meter or more shark. Wow. A shark big and bad enough to scare the be-neptune out of poor little 3 meter Alpha, chase her down, play with her a little bit, then kill and devour her. Just… wow.

    But sharks aren’t known to cat around with their prey. They kill, devour, and move on. Since the tag’s readings occur minutes apart, the erratic temp readings were recorded over a period of many minutes. I don’t have the exact data, but the number of readings indicates 20 or more minutes. That’s far longer than you’d keep a shark’s attention.

    Humboldt squid, however, are known to tussle over a kill. For various reasons, Humboldts are doubtful the killers but a group of unknown predatory animals behaving similarly might explain the readings. A pack of cooperative, intelligent, predatory cephalopods with members large enough to scare Alpha to that depth? Cooperative behavior implies intelligence and communication skills. “Play time” is also indicative of intelligent cooperative behavior. In wolves, play time strengthens pack bonds, and is a chance to pass on learned behaviors to the younger members, what we call “culture” in human context. Nightmare demons from the deep, or our new best friends? Either way, I would love to see that documentary.

    Above all is the point you made about the hydrocarbon leak. That alone is amazing. There is a diverse and well-fed ecological column seemingly powered by a methane leak. I write “seemingly” because that is also still theory. The ecology as a whole deserves more study, for the marine science, the biology, even global climate science. Theoretically, these frozen methane hydrate bubbles present a monstrous danger to our atmosphere’s ability to sustain us frail surface dwellers.

    And you’re right, Tom. If I were an active predator, intelligent enough to avoid the human limelight but needing to keep my belly full on a regular schedule, a place like Bremer Canyon is exactly where I would spend my time, gorging from a seafood buffet right over my 4500 meter deep kingdom.

    Thanks again for the details, Tom. I wouldn’t have known about this at all if you hadn’t dug it up.

  • Leah Russell

    “compress this ellipse into a period” is my new favorite anything.

  • BruceWM

    This did happen not too far of a swim north of the colossal squid’s (Mesonychoteuthis) known habitat. It’s bigger than the giant squid, with stronger tentacles that have both hooked and toothy suckers, a robust horny beak, and the largest eyes in the animal kingdom. What a beautiful terror.

  • BruceWM

    Mr. Riggs reported that on one day while filming over the Bremer Canyon, they spotted more than 100 orca in a 4 nautical mile stretch. A mark against orca, though, is that the ingestion took place well over twice the depth of the deepest known orca dive. That doesn’t rule out some super orca or an as yet unknown cetacean, though. One could exist that has adapted to staying at lower depths for longer times. Perhaps a useful adaptation could be to slow its oxygen consumption, thus lowering its body temperature to 78 degrees?

    Sorry for droning on, folks. Everything about this story has me thoroughly intrigued. I may need to make a trip to Western Australia soon.

  • Kaine Morrison

    The Sensor was External. Why couldn’t the “Alpha Shark” just have been bitten right there? That would cause the same reading. That only that part of it was eaten. What is the reason that they are speculating that the Shark was swallowed whole? I saw nothing in either the Article nor the Video to suggest that.

  • Kaine Morrison

    Between EndoTherm and ExoTherm is just Therm… :p

  • Allison Billips

    Giant squid.

  • Thomas Cox Killer Whale Vs Great White – Orca Kills Shark and Wins Fight

  • Hamza Talif

    Megladon (pre-historic 60ft great white shark)

  • Corey Barfield

    i agree but the reason i believe so is the way squid and great whites atk prey being that a great white would have atk’d from below hard and fast but not drag its prey down at an impossibly fast rate for even a shark double that size,where on the other hand that is exactly how a squid atk’s its prey once grabed the squid would be capable of dragging down a farly large animal at high speeds thanks to its unique design and propulsion system. still 2 factors are unknown to me and make a positive id just out of reach the temperature of the insides of a large squid and if the tag could have gotten past the squids beak without damage and swallowed whole.