7 “spooky” sharks and rays to learn about this Halloween
Dr Blake Chapman
Dr Blake Chapman
Dr Blake Chapman is Australian Geographic’s shark Editor-at-large.
Halloween is upon us, so let’s have some ghoulish fun and check out some of the spookiest ocean animals. But be warned, while bony skeletons normally run riot during this celebration of all things frightful, only animals that leave behind cartilaginous skeletons (that is, sharks, rays and their relatives) are in the moonlight in this story. So read on… if you dare.
Yes, there are animals called spookfish!
They are really bizarre looking fish in the family Rhinochimaeridae (longnose chimaeras). Chimaeras are close relatives of sharks, also being members of the cartilaginous fish class.
Spookfish are on the smallish side in comparison to the more commonly known shark species; of the four Rhinochimaeridae species that are found in Australian waters, the largest reach a maximum length of around 120 cm. They are generally elongated, slender, smooth animals with a very obvious long, pointed snout.
The bigspine spookfish is complete with a long, stringy-looking tail filament and a slightly curved snout not unlike the characteristic nose of a cackling witch. More pleasantly, they are a lovely chocolatey-brown colour. Spookfish only have one gill opening, whereas sharks have no fewer than five, and up to seven. They have pairs of beaklike cutting teeth, a spine just in front of their first dorsal fin and for that extra ooze factor, their heads are covered in mucous canals and sensory pores.
I am not sure where their spooky name comes from. But on an unrelated note, male spookfish have expanded spiny tips on their claspers (the external appendages used for reproductive purposes).
Ironically, while longnose chimaeras are known as spookfish, the shortnose family of chimaeras contains the ghostsharks (although, again, they are not true sharks. Or ghosts, for that matter). There are five species of ghostsharks in Australian waters. As their name implies, they lack the elongated snout of their long-nosed relatives. Instead, these highly distinctive animals have quite blunt snouts at the front of their disproportionately large head, followed by a robust body that quickly tapers to finally end in a small tail with a long, wispy, threadlike tailfin filament. They also have greatly extended second dorsal fins that run along most of their back, giving their body a bit of an eel-like appearance.
They, too, have a well-developed network of mucous canals on their head, which ironically gives them a very Frankenstein-like pieced-together appearance.
Not to be confused with the ghostsharks, there is also a ghost skate.
Skates are another family of cartilaginous fish (in the same superorder that contains rays).
In terms of names, seeing actually is believing for this animal! The ghost skate is small and pale, with a white or even translucent underside. Thanks to its pale skin, the silhouette of its blood-filled internal organs can sometimes be quite apparent, giving it a truly creepy look. And if you squint really hard, its heart-shaped disc could almost be interpreted as ghost-like. Anyway, the ghost skate’s name makes more sense in terms of appearance than the ghostshark’s!
These distinctive skates have a flexible snout and a long slender tail with bristle-like thorns on the upper surface. They are found on the continental shelf from Shark Bay to the Monte Bello Islands off of Western Australia.
Note: images of the ghost skate are scarce.
Moving onto more hellish themes, we have devilrays!
Devilrays are the largest of the rays, and, ironically, include the very lovable and charismatic manta rays. Most devilrays don’t even have spines! What devil rays do have, however, is cephalic lobes. These are prominent fleshy extensions of their very broad pectoral fins that appear at the front of their face. Ultimately, these serve as big scoops to help them to shovel food into their mouths. In all fairness to whoever named these magnificent animals, their unique fleshy cephalic lobes can look a bit devil horn-like.
Devilrays can be found worldwide in warm temperate and tropical seas. They are mostly pelagic animals, and are often found at the surface in groups.
Okay, so perhaps the Lucifer shark is a little bit of a Halloween-themed stretch, since the more common name for this shark is the blackbelly lanternshark (although this still comes across as a bit spooky in a dark, foggy, piratey sort of way). But the ‘Lucifer shark’, whose inclusion in this list is bolstered by its scientific name Etmopterus lucifer, still seems very theme-appropriate. These sharks are small (less than half a metre), slender (although actually a bit pot-bellied) lanternsharks with sickle-shaped tails. They have spines in front of both of their dorsal fins, large, glowing green eyes and crazy sharp, curved denticles (or ‘skin teeth’).
Oh, and they have light organs, so really, are just too perfect for our Halloween parade-of-sharks. Their luminescent bellies that are thought to be used to lure prey, such as squid, small fish and shrimp. They are often found in large schools, so their lights may also help them to find each other in environments that are completely devoid of light.
Everyone has a different definition of beautiful, but the goblin shark may be one of the animals that is truly deserving of its frightful name. Goblin sharks are large, capable of reaching lengths close to 4 metres, with pale grey bodies. However, they do lose a few petrifying points when you learn that they are scientifically described as ‘flabby’. But back to being creepily bizarre, they have a long, blade-like snout that precedes small eyes and a mouth that appears to sit too far back on the head.
But here’s where they really come into their nightmarish guise. They have extendable jaws that can be sling-shotted forward. In this movement, they swing their lower jaw down and back giving them a huge gape, which is of course filled with long, slender, pointy teeth (and some smaller, flattened ones, too). Then they rapidly thrust their jaws forward. Remarkably, they can do this at a velocity that reaches 3.1 m/s and to a distance equivalent to 9 per cent of their total body length (so possibly up to 35 cm!). This wins them the ‘fastest and greatest jaw protrusion among sharks’ award. The original descriptive drawing of this species illustrated the animal with its jaw fully open and extended, fetching them their goblin moniker.
Goblin sharks are found over scattered locations throughout the Pacific Ocean, including off New South Wales, Tasmania and possibly South Australia. They prefer deep, dark waters so are only very rarely seen and they are considered harmless to humans. Deepsea fish, squid, crustaceans and even submarine cables are not so safe; goblin shark teeth have been found embedded in the latter!
There couldn’t be a more perfect species to end with than the coffin ray. These hugely bizarre animals, which are also known as numbfish or numbrays, are electric rays. If you’re wondering what they look like, do not picture a coffin – their appearance was clearly not the inspiration for their name. Instead, they have an almost entirely featureless, very circular joint head/pectoral fin body abutted by a second much smaller, near-circle-shaped segment made of their pelvic fins and a very stumpy tail.
Coffin rays are often found hiding under the sand, opting for a very unpleasant trick over the much-preferred treat to anything that touches them. They are capable of delivering powerful, rapid electric shocks generated by electric organs in their pectoral fins. Normally these lightening-like discharges are targeted towards unfortunate crabs, worms and fish that are then gobbled up as prey.
Coffin rays are endemic to shallow bays and estuaries of Australian waters. If you’re dying to meet them, they found from southern Queensland, down and around the bottom of the country, and back up to north-western Western Australia.