In 2010 a new species of pocket shark was discovered in the Gulf of Mexico, found by researchers during a trawl survey aboard the NOAA ship Pisces, measuring only 5.5 inches (14cm) and named for two ‘pockets’ above its pectoral fins.

This is indeed a rare species, Mollisquama mississippiensis (American pocket shark), only the second find since a discovery in 1984 off the coast of Chile of a related species (M. parini).

Henry Bart, from Tulane University Biodiversity Research Institute and author of the study told IFLScience“If you can imagine how many fish have been trawled or fished from the sea, a number certainly in the billions, there has only been one of these captured and a single specimen of a related species.”

Mark Grace of NMFS Mississippi Laboratories of NOAA added, “Every time a new species is described it advances science, especially when novel scientific methods are used to describe the species, as was the case with the synchrotron imaging.”

The new species was collected in 2010, noticed as unusual by scientists in 2013 and it has taken years to test and definitively prove it had never been recorded before ( NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC/AP )

The world’s most intense source of synchrotron-generated light to image in high resolution the internal anatomy of the pocket shark was used, located at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble, France, and produces X-rays that are 100 billion times brighter than those used in hospitals.

There are several differences between the two species:  the American pocket shark has a putative pit organ, two teeth differences, 10 fewer vertebrae than M. parini, six differences in body shape, and photophores that emit light irregularly across its body.

Photophores produce light through a chemical reaction but “with regards to the pocket shark, one can only speculate about the purpose for the photophores and there are a range of possibilities that include camouflaging, attracting prey or attracting mates, or a combination of options,” said Grace.

An illustration of the pocket shark discovered in 2010. NOAA FishWatch.gov

“The reason that discoveries like this one haven’t happened before is that we know almost nothing about the biology of this species,” said Bart. “There has to be more of them out there; we just don’t know where to look.”

Since the differences between the two may be affected by their age and sex differences, further research is needed to before scientists would be able to declare the 2010 pocket shark as new species.

According to Bart, “The black color and photophores suggest it lives in the mesopelagic zone, a lightless zone between 200 and 1,000 meters depth. We don’t know much about any of the fish that live in this zone, but at least we have lots of specimens of other species of mesopelagic fish to study.”

“I think the most important thing about this discovery is that it emphasizes how little we know about the deep ocean. This little shark was caught at 580 meters or less. The deepest spot in the ocean is about 11,000 meters (deeper than Mount Everest is tall) and there are fish and other kinds of sea life down there that we know almost nothing about.”

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