'Extinct' Shark Species Rediscovered: Researchers Find 47 Smoothtooth Blacktip Sharks In Middle Eastern Fish Markets

By Josh Lieberman on January 15, 2014 3:23 PM EST

fish market
Once suspected of being extinct, the smoothtooth blacktip shark has shown up at a number of fish markets in Kuwait, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. Above, sharks at a Yemen fish market. (Photo: Flickr: rod_waddington)

In recent years, researchers have uncovered about 50 dead smoothtooth blacktip sharks at fish markets in Kuwait, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates. "Big deal," you might be thinking, "some dead sharks." Well, it is sort of a big deal: before the fish market discoveries, there was only one smoothtooth blacktip shark known to exist, a specimen from 1902 that wasn't even examined and identified until 1985. So little has been known about the creature, in fact, that shark specialist Alec Moore of the International Union for Conservation of Nature says that "some suspected it might be extinct or not a valid species."

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But valid it is. In 2008, the smoothtooth blacktip shark, or Carcharhinus leiodon, was rediscoverd in Kuwait's sharq market (the name coincidentally sounds like "shark," but it means "east" in Arabic). At first, the 2008 specimen, which was found 1,800 miles from the 1902 specimen, was considered "very similar but different" from a smoothtooth blacktip shark. Later analysis, however, confirmed that it was in fact a smoothtooth blacktip shark.

The confirmed rediscovery of the smoothtooth blacktip shark set off a years-long exploration of fish markets in Kuwait, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, where scientists poked through early-morning fish catches, a far cry from their usual sterile confines of the laboratory. Alec Moore, the IUCN shark specialist and lead author on a new study of the 47 smoothtooth blacktip sharks, said such a field study was challenging and a bit disgusting, but ultimately rewarding.

"[I] once made the mistake of climbing into a skip [waste bin] to sample a load of rays that had been festering in the sun; the response of my gastrointestinal tract to this was, as an understatement, memorably unfavorable," said Moore. He added that although the fisherman were "sometimes bemused by what we are doing, they are generally very tolerant of weird foreigners poking around, and we've met some incredibly generous, funny and helpful people--we've even been given breakfast."

It may sound unusual that fisherman would uncover a species that scientists have failed to, but Julia Spaet, a researcher at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia, said it makes sense. "[T]he resources dedicated by a fleet of fishermen will always outmatch any scientific efforts to assess abundances," said Spaet. "In other words, the fishing industry is more efficient at finding sharks where there are not much left." 

The study of the 47 smoothtooth blacktip sharks has yielded some of the first data on the little-known species, including their average size, how many pups they can bear, and their habitat usage.    

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