Scientists discover new shark species that glows in the dark

The American pocket shark is the only known specimen of its kind to have ever been found.

American pocket shark

The tiny shark, named the American pocket shark, was collected by chance in 2010 by a research team aboard a NOAA ship studying sperm whale feeding off the Gulf of Mexico. But it wasn’t until 2013 that the shark was found amidst the other specimens that had been collected during the survey.

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The shark was sent to the Tulane University Biodiversity Research Institute in 2015 for further investigation, where it was compared to a pocket shark found off the east coast of Chile — the only other similar specimen to have been found.

The original pocket shark was found in 1979 and was described as a new species in 1984. Until the American pocket shark was identified, it was the only pocket shark known to science.

Both species are types of kitefin shark, but with five key differences that classifies them as being separate species.

Though both have small pocket glands behind each pectoral fin on either side of the body, the glands of American pocket shark produce a bioluminescent fluid, and photophores (light producing organs) cover much of its body, enabling it to glow in the dark.

“The fact that only one pocket shark has ever been reported from the Gulf of Mexico, and that it is a new species, underscores how little we know about the Gulf — especially its deeper waters — and how many additional new species from these waters await discovery,” said Henry Bart, Director of the Tulane Biodiversity Research Institute.

Details of the American pocket shark are described in Zootaxa.

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Photography by Michael Dooey/Tulane University.