Say “shark” to most people, and they’re liable to imagine a ginormous, gulping great white – or, perhaps, a sleek, solid requiem shark, maybe a hammerhead. Yet these superstar cartilaginous fish come in all shapes and sizes, and many take small and (compared with the “conventional” image, anyhow) rather bizarre forms.
A case in point is a squat little bugger whose piglike mug has popped up all over social media lately. The beastie in question is an angular roughshark found floating, expired, off the Italian island of Elba and plucked ashore by some naval officers, who posted pics of the creature to Facebook and thereby assured it a viral afterlife.
The angular roughshark, also known as the flatiron shark or the “pig fish,” looks way off the great-white blueprint. For starters, it’s on the stubby side of things, usually running a metre or less in length. Its upturned snout and heavy nostrils, meanwhile, aren’t the only features summoning a barnyard hog to mind: Note the pudgy, pink-tinged body as well.
The shark has other distinctive characteristics, too, including the big, friendly-looking eyes, which get a lidded look from pronounced ridges, and the proportionately large, tall dorsal fins, both of which come spined.
It’s a pretty cute package, all things considering, but it’s worth noting that this lesser-known shark, like so many of its kin, isn’t looking at the cheeriest conservation prognosis.
Angular roughsharks inhabit not only the Mediterranean Sea but also quite the north-south spread in the eastern Atlantic, from Norway all the way down to South Africa. They prowl the continental shelf and the upper continental slope, mainly at depths below 100 metres, where they’re thought to munch on marine worms as well as crustaceans, small fish, and the eggcases of their fellow elasmobranches (sharks and rays).
Exploited to some degree for food, fishmeal, and liver oil, the angular roughshark is mainly caught in bottom trawls as bycatch. Its morphology may contribute to its vulnerability: As the Shark Trust notes, “Its large dorsal fins and spines make it susceptible to capture in nets whilst its depth range lies entirely within reach of fisheries across much of its range.”
While comprehensive information is lacking on the angular roughshark’s status, the IUCN – which classifies the species as “Vulnerable” globally and as “Critically Endangered” in the Mediterranean due to significant declines – suggests its overall population may have decreased by 50 to 79 percent over the past 60 years or so.
This trend is, unfortunately, not at all unique across the angular roughshark’s family tree. A new assessment published in Current Biology suggests more than a third of cartilaginous fishes are imperilled to the point of near-extinction from overfishing (mainly as bycatch), which more broadly serves as the major threat to sharks, rays, and chimaeras alongside such compounding, interrelated problems as habitat loss/degradation, pollution, and climate change. “Sharks and rays are the canary in the coal mine of overfishing,” the study’s lead author, Nicholas Dulvy of Simon Fraser University, told Wired earlier this month.
And that distressing survey only adds to the grim picture painted by a Nature study from January, which indicated oceanic shark and ray numbers have dropped by more than 70 percent over the past half-century.