Everything You Ever Wanted to know About the Goblin Shark

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goblin shark
Image Credit: Wiki Commons/Public Domain

The goblin shark, known scientifically as Mitsukurina owstoni, represents the sole living species of the family Mitsukurinidae within the order Lamniformes. It is often referred to as a “living fossil” due to its lineage dating back approximately 125 million years. Characterized by its distinctively elongated snout and protrusible jaws, the goblin shark has a peculiar appearance.

With few specimens ever captured, the goblin shark’s biology and lifestyle remain shrouded in mystery. Found in deep marine waters, particularly near Japan, the shark’s habitat extends deep into the ocean, where sunlight is scarce. This environment has contributed to the development of its unique feeding mechanism, where ligaments allow it to extend its jaw to catch prey such as teleost fish and squid.

Physical Description

The goblin shark’s most notable feature is its long snout, which contrasts sharply with its other facial features. Behind the snout, it has prominent nail-like teeth within highly protrusible jaws. Its body exhibits a soft, flabby consistency and a pinkish color due to visible blood vessels beneath its semi-transparent skin.

Unique Adaptations

Goblin sharks have a series of unique adaptations that suit their deep-sea environment. The jaw of the goblin shark is attached with specialized ligaments that allow it to slam its extendable jaw forward to capture prey. This mechanism is highly unusual and an extraordinary example of evolutionary design among sharks.

Habitat and Distribution

The goblin shark is a deep-sea inhabitant that surfaces in waters around the world, chiefly near continental shelves and seamounts.

Geographical Range

The goblin shark has a wide geographical range, identified in scattered locations across the globe. They are notably present in the waters off Japan, from where they were initially described. However, their presence is not confined to the Pacific; they have made appearances in the Western Atlantic, including the Gulf of Mexico, and along the coasts of Brazil. This species has also been recorded in the Eastern Atlantic, with specimens found near France, Portugal, Madeira, and as far south as South Africa and Mozambique. Encounters have also been reported from waters around Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan.

Preferred Depths

Goblin sharks favor profound depths in the ocean, typically inhabiting areas that are challenging to explore and often unfished. They thrive particularly on the upper continental slope, at depths ranging from roughly 890 to over 3,150 feet. Mature individuals are sometimes found farther down into the abyss, at depths up to 4,300 feet. They really are creatures of the deep sea. Their preference for such remote and unfished environments allows them to avoid many of the threats faced by other marine species.

Feeding Behaviors

The goblin shark exhibits unique hunting strategies and has a diet that mainly comprises deep-sea creatures.

Hunting Strategies

The goblin shark is an ambush predator, utilizing stealth to subdue its prey. It is known to use active predation techniques; rather than passively waiting for prey, it approaches using slow, deliberate movements. One of its most notable adaptations is the ability to rapidly extend its jaw to capture prey, using a technique called ram feeding, similar to other mackerel sharks. This species relies on sensitive rostrum to detect electric fields generated by potential prey, an ability known as electroreception.

Diet and Prey

The goblin shark eats a variety of teleost fish, cephalopods such as squid and octopus, and crustaceans. These sharks are opportunistic feeders and will likely consume whatever prey is available in their deep-sea habitat. They play the role of predators in their ecosystem, helping to regulate the populations of their prey species.

Reproductive Biology

The reproductive biology of goblin sharks is largely unknown due to the rarity of observing these deep-sea animals. Most of what is suspected about their reproductive habits is based on what scientists know about other mackerel sharks.

Mating Habits

Goblin sharks are believed to engage in internal fertilization, a common trait among sharks. In this process, the male shark inserts sperm directly into the female’s reproductive tract. Due to the goblin shark’s elusive deep-sea nature, the specifics of their mating rituals, including courtship and mate selection, remain a mystery to researchers.

Development and Birth of Young

The exact development process of young goblin sharks is not fully understood. It is theorized that they give live birth to their young, a process known in sharks as ovoviviparity. This means the embryos develop inside eggs that remain in the female’s body until they hatch. The possibility of oophagy, where the developing embryos feed on unfertilized eggs provided by the mother, has not been ruled out for goblin sharks. Upon completion of their development, pups are believed to be born fully formed and self-sufficient, ready to survive independently in the deep sea.

Conservation Status

The goblin shark is currently classified as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List. Its deep-sea habitat often keeps it away from common human interactions.

Human Impact

Goblin sharks are occasionally caught as bycatch in fisheries, particularly in areas where deepwater trawls and gillnets are common. These encounters, though not typically targeted, can have negative implications for the species.

Conservation Efforts

Efforts to conserve the goblin shark are minimal due to its ‘least concern’ status. However, understanding the impacts of deep-sea fishing practices is crucial for the continued health of their populations. Monitoring bycatch and managing fisheries may contribute to their preservation.

Scientific and Public Interest

The goblin shark commands interest both in scientific circles due to its primitive features and in pop culture owing to its unusual appearance.

Research Significance

Scientists remain intrigued by the goblin shark’s unique anatomy and evolutionary history. Known as a “living fossil,” the species has survived relatively unchanged for over 100 million years. Captures, although rare, provide invaluable insights into the deep-sea ecosystem and the evolutionary pathways of sharks. The goblin shark’s distinctive protrusible jaws, which extend forward when capturing prey, are a particular point of study. In 1898, David Starr Jordan, a noted ichthyologist, first described the species from a specimen found in Yokohama, cementing the shark’s scientific importance. The infrequency of its capture only adds to its enigmatic status and compels further research effort.

Cultural Reference

In public interest, the goblin shark often surfaces in conversations about the ocean’s mysterious creatures. Its alien-like appearance has inspired comparisons to creatures in science fiction films, notably the “Alien” movie series. The name “goblin shark” itself echoes mythical creatures and lends a certain enigma. In Japan, it’s sometimes associated with “Tengu,” supernatural beings from folklore, which symbolizes the blend of mythology with natural wonder the goblin shark represents. Despite its infrequent interaction with humans, the creature has carved out a niche in popular culture, symbolizing the vast unexplored mysteries of the deep sea.

Anatomy and Physiology

The goblin shark’s unique anatomy, such as its protrusible jaw and specialized electroreception, equips it for deep-sea life. Its physiology includes adaptations for breathing in low-oxygen environments.


The goblin shark possesses a notable snout, or rostrum, packed with ampullae of Lorenzini. These jelly-filled pores act as electroreceptors, allowing the shark to detect electrical fields produced by other organisms. This adaptation aids in locating prey, even in the dark depths of the ocean where vision is limited.

Respiratory Adaptations

The goblin shark has developed respiratory adaptations to survive deep in the ocean, where oxygen levels are lower. It has large, highly vascularized gills relative to body size that efficiently extract oxygen from the water. This efficient respiratory system is crucial for its survival in the deep-sea environment.

Jaw Mechanics

The goblin shark’s jaws are highly specialized for its ambush lifestyle. Unlike other sharks, it can protrude its jaws rapidly to capture prey. This jaw extension is possible due to unique ligaments and muscles that allow the jaws to snap forward, enhancing the shark’s ability to catch elusive deep-sea creatures.

Behavioral Ecology

The goblin shark exhibits unique behaviors in the depths of the ocean, primarily noted for its solitude and specialized hunting strategies.

Social Behavior

The goblin shark is typically a solitary creature and is rarely observed in groups. This deep-sea shark is known for its lone existence, residing mostly in the open ocean where human encounters are almost nonexistent. These sharks prefer the quiet and remote habitats of the oceanic environment.

Predatory Tactics

As an ambush predator, the goblin shark’s predatory tactics are distinctive and efficient. Utilizing its highly developed, protrusible jaws, the shark can swiftly snap forward to capture prey with rows of sharp teeth. This mechanism allows for an unexpected and rapid attack on prey. The goblin shark’s diet consists primarily of fish and squid, and it employs a ‘sit-and-wait’ strategy, where it capitalizes on the element of surprise as its weapon. Despite its slow appearance, it is a capable predator within its deep-sea habitat, among other mackerel sharks.

Due to the deep-sea environment where the goblin shark lives, direct observations of their behavior are limited, but studies suggest that their hunting methods are adapted to the low-light conditions found at these depths. Their pinkish coloration and flabby body aid in camouflaging within the dark waters, making them more effective predators.

Interactions with Other Species

The goblin shark’s presence in deep-sea ecosystems involves both its influence on other marine life and its own strategies for survival, highlighting complex deep-sea food web interactions.

Role in the Ecosystem

The goblin shark contributes to the deep-sea environment by preying on a variety of organisms. They are known to consume squids and pelagic crustaceans, which form key parts of their diet. These feeding habits place goblin sharks as mid-level predators, crucial for maintaining the populations of such prey species within ecological balance.

Predation and Competition

Goblin sharks face competition from other deep-sea predators. They share their hunting grounds with species like dragonfish and rattails, which also prey on marine creatures like squids and various fish. While there isn’t direct evidence of frequent competition, there’s an implication of their coexistence in overlapping territories. The black scabbardfish is another deep-sea dweller that might cross paths with the goblin shark, competing for similar prey. However, due to the vast and underexplored stretches of the deep ocean, the full extent of these interactions still remains largely uncharted.

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