Scientists Identify Stealthy Ninja Shark

Vásquez V.E. et al. Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, 2015
Vásquez V.E. et al. Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, 2015 / Vásquez V.E. et al. Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation, 2015

We like to think we’ve seen everything this planet has to offer, yet thousands upon thousands of new species are discovered each year. Many of these species are, truthfully, not much to look at for the average observer. But there are always a few spectacular exceptions, and the newly identified ninja lantern shark is definitely one of those. 

Yes, that’s its real name. Formally known as Etmopterus benchleyi, the ninja is the newest addition to the large fish family known as the lantern sharks. These are smallish sharks with a pretty cool superpower: they glow. The bellies of lantern sharks are outfitted with special cells called photophores that produce light in deep water. Scientists aren’t totally sure why they do this; it’s possible that the sharks are using the optical illusions produced by the light as a form of camouflage from animals looking up at them from below. 

And then there is the ninja. Researchers first spotted E. benchleyi in deep waters off the coast of Central America in 2010. They thought they were looking at something unusual but weren’t sure, so they brought a few specimens back to the lab to take a closer look.

What they saw was pretty weird. The sharks were black from head to tail, and there were no photophores on their undersides. The glow cells were concentrated on their heads, and even these appear to give off only a faint blue light. These weren’t like any lantern sharks the scientists had ever seen—it was like the animals had taken stealth to the next level. They described their findings last month in the Journal of the Ocean Science Foundation.

Lead author Vicky Vásquez decided to let her favorite shark experts name the new species. The committee, comprised of four kids in Vásquez’s family between the ages of 8 and 14, settled on the "ninja lantern shark." "They started with 'super ninja,' but I had to scale them back," Vásquez told LiveScience.

Writing in the journal article, Vásquez explained that the name “ … refers to the uniform black coloration and reduced photophore complement used as concealment in this species, somewhat reminiscent of the typical outfit and stealthy behavior of a Japanese ninja.”

The shark’s Latin name, E. benchleyi, is a tribute to Peter Benchley, the Jaws author-turned-shark advocate.

If all this sneaky shark business is freaking you out, you can calm down. Yes, E. benchleyi is built like an assassin, but not yours. For one thing, it lives deep, deep in the ocean. 

“You would need a submersible to better your odds of finding one,” Vásquez told mental_floss in an email. 

And then there’s the fact that a full-grown adult ninja lantern shark is roughly the size of a ferret. So unless you get zapped with a shrink ray and forced into a submarine, you’re probably pretty safe from these guys. (PSA: Not all sharks are enormous, and none of them actually want to hurt you. Lay off the sharks, please.)