The Case of the Unknown and Absolutely Adorable Shark

The Case of the Unknown and Absolutely Adorable Shark

When some of the world’s leading fish biologists were stumped over the identification of an unusual fish, they turned to College of Charleston marine biology professor Gavin Naylor for help.

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Marine biology professor Gavin Naylor.

Naylor, an expert on sharks and rays, received a sample of the rare fish’s tissue and analyzed its DNA. When the results were in, Naylor helped his fellow fish experts make an identification of the fish. It was a pocket shark, the experts agreed, and only the second known specimen ever found.

“It’s a dinky little shark,” says the affable Naylor, who was interviewed about the discovery by Newsweek, among other media outlets. But, he warns, it has “some savage-looking jaws on it.”

The small shark is named appropriately. Not only could the five-inch-long creature fit within one’s pocket, the shark has a pocket of its own on its body, behind its pectoral fin. Scientists, including Naylor, speculate the shark secretes a luminous fluid from its pocket when in danger, though this theory is unconfirmed.

The elusive and rarely-seen pocket shark. Courtesy J. Wicker/NOAA.

Naylor’s lab sequenced the DNA of the pocket shark and compared it to DNA from 10,000 other sharks they had sequenced. They found the pocket shark  was closely related to the Cookie Cutter shark, which bites small, cookie-shaped plugs of flesh out of other animals (and sometimes rubber portions of submarines).”

A scan of the pocket shark’s mouth and jaws.

For those interested in sharks and rays, Naylor has developed a fascinating website devoted to shark anatomy – sharksrays.org. By performing CT scans on the animals, Naylor and his students have created a database of remarkably detailed 3-D images of many of the world’s sharks and rays, allowing humans to peer inside animals without ever using a scalpel.

Naylor describes it as “doing dissection without the smell.”

As he’s previously explained to the College of Charleston Magazine, by comparing the anatomies of different species, scientists can isolate which genes are responsible for the evolution of traits seen in different species.

Naylor’s shark expertise is so well respected, in fact, that Discovery Canada recently filmed him as part of the television series “Daily Planet.” Naylor is scheduled to appear on July 9, 2015, in the middle of Discovery’s popular “Shark Week.”

 

 

 

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Naylor is certainly excited to be part of the research team studying the rare pocket shark. The truth is, however, that he gets giddy talking about any kind of shark or ocean life in general.

“If you gave me a submarine,” Naylor says. “I would be happy to spend my entire life looking around down there.”

VIDEO: Learn how professor Gavin Naylor and his students use CT scans to build an anatomical database of sharks and rays.