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Scientists Solve Mystery Of Deep Sea Creature’s Strange Jaws

The goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni) remains one of the strangest known deep sea creatures. The shark is sometimes referred to as a “living fossil” due to the fact that it is the last known living creature in the family Mitsukurindae, which largely disappeared over 100 million years ago.

Mitsukurina owstoni

Mitsukurina owstoni.

The goblin shark has fascinated biologists since the animal’s discovery. The animal’s most distinctive feature is its large, protruding snout which extends frontward like a comically-large nose. The shark’s jaws then extend below the snout, but are proportionally dwarfed by the animal’s strange facial appendage.

The goblin shark's jaws are disproportionately undersized compared to its snout.

The goblin shark’s jaws are disproportionately undersized compared to its snout.

The goblin shark also features a unique translucent coloration, made pink by blood vessels just beneath the shark’s skin. Without a doubt, though, the goblin shark’s creepiest and strangest feature is its jaw. The seemingly ineffectual upper and lower jaws, made unassuming by their small size, can spring forward as the animal feeds.

A 2016 study recently published in Scientific Reports analyzed recent rare footage of goblin sharks feeding and finally deduced why the shark might possess such strange jaws. According to the mostly Japanese researchers who published the study, the jaws are an adaptation that (you guessed it) help the shark catch food in the barren wastes of the deep ocean:

The rapid and extensive jaw protrusion of the goblin shark may compensate for its apparent lack of ability for fast and sustained swimming to pursue prey. The jaw protrusion of the goblin shark will serve the species to expand the accessible distance to the prey, and enable it to capture the faster swimming prey, allowing it to seize elusive prey.

That’s some cutting edge research, Scientific Reports. Because food is scarce in the black void of the ocean bottom, goblin sharks must be able to capitalize on prey whenever it appears. The jaws make up for the physical limitations of the awkward shark, enabling it to catch food without actually moving its body too much. Thus, the goblin shark goes down as one of the creepiest AND laziest sea monsters out there.

The feeding behavior of the goblin shark.

The feeding behavior of the goblin shark.

The discovery of the shark is an interesting tale in itself, famously described in an 1989 article in the Proceedings of California Academy of Sciences. The first known goblin shark specimen was caught by a Japanese fisherman, who gave it to English naturalist Alan Owston who then passed it along to University of Tokyo biology professor Kakichi Mitsukuri; the shark’s name comes from the surnames of these two men.

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Brett Tingley is a writer and musician living in the ancient Appalachian mountains.
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