New ‘walking’ shark discovered

By Jonathan Ives 5 September 2013
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A new bamboo shark species that uses its fins to ‘walk’ across the sea floor has been discovered in Indonesia.

A NEW SPECIES OF bamboo or ‘walking’ shark has been discovered in Indonesia.

Recently described in Aqua, International Journal of Ichthyology, the species, Hemiscyllium halmahera, was first photographed by a dive guide in 2008 who informed scientists, including Dr Mark Erdmann, senior advisor to Conservation International’s Indonesia Marine Program.

“We immediately noted the colouration differences, which in general are very important in walking sharks,” says Mark. “But it was only much later during an expedition with the Indonesian Institute of Sciences and local University of Khairun in Ternate that we were able to verify this new species.”

This beautiful new species belongs to a group known as epaulette sharks, recognisable by their large black spots, reminiscent of military epaulettes, located behind each pectoral fin. Named after the island of Halmahera in North Maluku Province, where it is found exclusively, H. halmahera has a light brown colour with leopard-like dark brown spots alternating with scattered white spots. Unlike similar species, it has relatively few spots on the snout.

A shark that walks

Although walking sharks can swim when required, they are famous for their unique behaviour of utilising their fins like hands to ‘walk’ over the reef. “As their prey is mostly small benthic fishes and invertebrates like crustaceans (crabs, shrimps) and molluscs, they have adapted a ‘walking’ behaviour whereby they basically crawl over the substrate, poking their heads beneath overhanging coral heads,” says Mark.

Professor Colin Simpfendorfer, shark researcher from James Cook University and Director for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture says it is amazing that such a distinctive species has remained undiscovered for so long.

Colin suggests discoveries like this are not alone, with an average of one new shark species being discovered every two weeks over the past 20 years. “It shows we still have a lot to learn about the ocean.”

New conservation hope

This discovery also has a significant role to play in conservation, with six of the nine known species of walking shark found in Indonesian waters.

For nearly three decades Indonesia has been the world’s leading exporter of shark products, including shark fins. In recent times, however, there has been a growing understanding of shark diversity and an awareness of their ecological importance.

“By gaining this type of understanding, people become more understanding of the challenges that sharks are facing and are supportive of conservation efforts,” says Colin.

Mark is delighted to see the increased focus on sustainable management and conservation of sharks in Indonesia, acknowledging that a main impetus in moving forward with their research was a request from the Halmahera government to help promote the unique species of their area. He suggests the new walking shark could act as a great local ambassador for conservation.