People who accidentally catch a Mitsukurina owstoni, a.k.a. the goblin shark, don’t tend to forget the experience. With their intricate jaws and ghostly complexions, the fish look like prehistoric monsters—or visitors from another planet. This species certainly isn't the world's fastest shark, nor the biggest, nor the most powerful, but the goblin shark does come with an irresistible aura of mystery. Here are 12 things you probably didn't know about it.
1. IT GETS ITS COMMON NAME FROM A JAPANESE DEMON.
The goblin shark has a huge range that includes much of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, but it’s most commonly encountered off the coasts of Japan. Japanese fishermen who accidentally caught the sharks couldn’t help but notice their protruding snouts, which reminded them of folk stories about a long-nosed, red-faced demon known as the tengu. So they began calling the species tengu-zame. (Zame means “shark” in Japanese.) This was translated into English as “goblin shark,” with “elfin shark” being an alternative name the creature occasionally goes by.
2. IT PREFERS DEEP WATER.
Adults are normally captured while swimming at depths of 900 to 4300 feet. Juveniles sometimes venture to within 90 feet of the surface, but like their parents, they appear to prefer going deep. The goblin shark has small eyes, and given the depths they frequent, they probably rely on some of their other senses more heavily.
3. IT CAN GET BIG.
Much of the goblin shark's life cycle—including how it mates and gives birth—is a mystery. The largest recorded individual was 12.6 feet long and weighed 463 pounds, but it’s possible that goblin sharks can grow even bigger.
4. NOBODY KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT THE CREATURE’S UNUSUAL SNOUT IS FOR.
The goblin shark’s most distinctive feature is arguably its long, flattened snout, which looks like the blade of a broadsword when viewed from above. Some have proposed that the extra-long snout is used to poke around for food in narrow crevices. Another explanation involves the ampullae of Lorenzini, the sensory system that allows sharks to pick up the electrical signals of prey underwater. Scientists believe that one reason why hammerhead sharks have such odd-looking heads is because the broad, flat noggin design provides extra room for ampullae of Lorenzini pores; maybe the goblin shark’s elongated nose evolved for the same purpose.
5. WHEN HUNTING, IT THRUSTS ITS JAW FORWARD IN WHAT SCIENTISTS CALL "SLINGSHOT FEEDING."
A goblin shark's jaws are attached to elastic ligaments, and when prey comes within striking distance, the jaw protrudes, allowing the shark to catapult its whole mouth forward at a distance equal to 8.6 to 9.4 percent of its total body length. (If a human mouth was capable of moving like that, you could bite into a piece of food dangling 7 inches in front of your nose.) The unique bite style has been dubbed “slingshot feeding” by researchers at Hokkaido University.
6. IT CAN DEPLOY ITS JAWS TWICE AS FAST AS NEW YORK CITY'S PEDESTRIANS WALK...
New York City pedestrians are legendary for their foot speed, but video recordings of goblin sharks show that even fast walkers have nothing on this shark's jaws, which it can deploy at a speed of 10.1 feet per second—roughly twice as fast as a 2006 study determined pedestrians walk in New York City.
7. ... AND OPEN ITS MOUTH REALLY, REALLY WIDE.
Its mouth opens to an incredible 111-degree angle. Between the reach of its jaw and the capacity of its maw, the shark can fully engulf seemingly-out-of-reach prey in the blink of an eye.
8. IT'S NOT A FAST SWIMMER.
Why do goblin sharks have such freaky jaws? The answer probably has something to do with the way they swim. Goblin sharks are flabby, soft-bodied predators with small fins and a flexible tail that isn’t designed for rapid bursts of propulsion—making them slow-moving fish. So maybe the slingshot feeding technique evolved as a way to help the sluggish carnivore catch its prey in low-light conditions.
9. ITS NATURAL DIET INCLUDES CRABS AND SQUID.
In 2003, a Japanese team examined the stomachs of 121 goblin sharks that had been captured in an underwater canyon near Tokyo and found crustaceans, squid, and bony fish. Other specimens have had octopuses, shrimp, and fin rays in their digestive tracts.
10. THE GOBLIN SHARK IS THE ONLY LIVING MEMBER OF ITS FAMILY.
The Mitsukurinidae family likely evolved during the Cretaceous period. Sharks within this group—including the extant goblin shark—had thin, needle-like teeth towards the front of the mouth. Prehistoric varieties included Anomotodon novus, which lived around Europe and North America between 47.8 and 38 million years ago. Other fossil species had a global distribution.
The family Mitsukurinidae is part of an order of sharks known as the Lamniformes, which also contains the basking shark and great white. Lamniformes have five gill slits on either side of their bodies and most species have two dorsal fins.
11. YOU MIGHT BE SURPRISED BY THE GOBLIN SHARK’S COLOR SCHEME.
Fish specialists used to assume that, like many other sharks, goblins were gray. But in 1976, scientists photographed a specimen on the verge of death—and the fish was pink! Goblin sharks have translucent skin that lacks pigment, and thanks to bloodstreams lying just beneath the hide, live goblins generally look whitish-pink or grayish-purple. After death, however, their color appears to change, with the skin looking fully brown or gray post-mortem.
12. A COUPLE OF DIFFERENT MOVIE MONSTERS HAVE BEEN BASED ON THE GOBLIN SHARK.
Knifehead, a kaiju from Pacific Rim (2013), has a long, pointed snout that is a deliberate homage to the goblin shark. And according to Charlie Henley, VFX supervisor on 2017's Alien: Covenant, he and his team looked to the goblin shark for inspiration when designing the movie's white-skinned “neomorph,” which had a set of protruding jaws it used to take out a traveler halfway through the movie.