(Bloch & J. G. Schneider, 1801)
|Range of the Greenland shark|
The Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus), also known as the gurry shark, or grey shark, or by the Inuit name eqalussuaq, is a large shark of the family Somniosidae ("sleeper sharks"), closely related to the Pacific and southern sleeper sharks. The distribution of this species is mostly restricted to the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean and Arctic Ocean.
It has the longest known lifespan of all vertebrate species (392 ± 120 years), and is among the largest extant species of shark. As an adaptation to living at depth, it has a high concentration of trimethylamine N-oxide in its tissues, which causes the meat to be toxic. Greenland shark flesh treated to reduce toxin levels is eaten in Iceland as a delicacy known as kæstur hákarl.
The Greenland shark is one of the largest living species of shark, with dimensions comparable to those of the great white shark. Greenland sharks grow to 6.4 m (21 ft) and 1,000 kg (2,200 lb), and possibly up to 7.3 m (24 ft) and more than 1,400 kg (3,100 lb). Most Greenland sharks observed have been around 2.44–4.8 m (8.0–15.7 ft) long and weigh up to 400 kg (880 lb). Males are typically smaller than females. It rivals the Pacific sleeper shark (possibly up to 7 m or 23 ft long) as the largest species in the family Somniosidae. The Greenland shark is a thickset species with a short, rounded snout, small eyes, and very small dorsal and pectoral fins. The gill openings are very small for the species' great size. Coloration can range from pale creamy-gray to blackish-brown and the body is typically uniform in color, though whitish spots or faint dark streaks are occasionally seen on the back.
When feeding on large carcasses, the shark employs a rolling motion of its jaw. The teeth of the upper jaw are very thin and pointed, lacking serrations. These upper jaw teeth, numbering from 48 to 52, act as an anchor while the lower jaw does the cutting. The lower teeth are interlocking and are broad and square, 50 to 52 in count, containing short, smooth cusps that point outward. Teeth in the two halves of the lower jaw are strongly pitched in opposite directions.
The Greenland shark is an apex predator and mostly eats fish. It has never been observed hunting. Recorded fish prey have included smaller sharks, skates, eels, herring, capelin, Arctic char, cod, redfish, sculpins, lumpfish, wolffish, and flounder. Greenland sharks have also been found with remains of polar bears, horses, moose, and reindeer (in one case an entire reindeer body) in their stomachs. The Greenland shark is known to be a scavenger, and is attracted by the smell of rotting meat in the water. The sharks have frequently been observed gathering around fishing boats. It also preys on seals.
Although such a large shark could easily consume a human swimmer, the frigid waters it typically inhabits make the likelihood of attacks on humans very low, and no cases of predation on people have been verified.
As an ectotherm living in a just-above-freezing environment (~2 °C), the Greenland shark has the lowest swim speed and tail-beat frequency for its size across all fish species, which most likely correlates with its very slow metabolism and extreme longevity. It swims at a leisurely 1.22 km/h (0.76 mph) with their fastest cruising speed only reaching 2.6 km/h (1.6 mph). Because this top speed is only half that of a typical seal in their diet, biologists have wondered how the sharks are able to prey on the faster seals. It is hypothesized that they may ambush them while they sleep.
Greenland sharks migrate annually based on depth and temperature rather than distance, although some do travel. During the winter, the sharks congregate in the shallows (up to 80° north) for warmth but migrate separately in summer to the deeps or even farther south in summer. The species has been observed at a depth of 2,200 m (7,200 ft) by a submersible investigating the wreck of the SS Central America that lies about about 160 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. In August 2013, researchers from Florida State University caught the first documented Greenland shark in the Gulf of Mexico at a depth of 1,749 m (5,738 ft), where the water temperature was 4.1 °C (39.4 °F). A more typical depth for the species is above 1,200 m (3,900 ft).
The shark is often colonized by the parasitic and bioluminescent copepod Ommatokoita elongata, which attaches itself to the shark's eyes and attracts prey to the shark's head. The shark occupies what tends to be a very deep environment seeking its preferable cold water (−0.6 to 12 °C or 30.9 to 53.6 °F) habitat.
The Greenland shark has the longest known lifespan of all vertebrate species. One Greenland shark was tagged off Greenland in 1936 and recaptured in 1952. Its measurements suggest that Greenland sharks grow at a rate of 0.5–1 cm (0.2–0.4 in) per year. In 2016, a study based on 28 specimens that ranged from 81 to 502 cm (2.7–16.5 ft) in length determined by radiocarbon dating that the oldest of the animals that they sampled, which also was the largest, had lived for 392 ± 120 years (a minimum of 272 years and a maximum of 512 years). The authors further concluded that the species reaches sexual maturity at about 150 years of age.
As recently as 1957, females were found not to deposit eggs in the bottom mud, but retain the developing embryos within their bodies so they are born alive after an undetermined gestation period (a process known as viviparity). About 10 pups per litter are normal, each initially measuring some 38–42 cm (15–17 in) in length.
Like other elasmobranchs, Greenland sharks have high concentrations of the nitrogenous waste products urea and trimethylamine N-oxide (TMAO) in their tissues, which increases their buoyancy and function as osmoprotectants. TMAO also counteracts the protein-destabilizing tendencies of urea and of deep-water pressure. Its presence in the tissues of both elasmobranch and teleost fish has been found to increase with depth.
The flesh of the Greenland shark is toxic because of the presence of high concentrations of trimethylamine oxide (TMAO). If the meat is eaten raw or even if cooked without pretreatment, the ingested TMAO is metabolized into trimethylamine, which can produce effects similar to extreme drunkenness. Occasionally, sled dogs that eat the flesh are unable to stand up because of this effect. Similar toxic effects occur with the related Pacific sleeper shark, but not in most other shark species, whose meat is often consumed fresh.
The meat can be eaten if it is boiled in several changes of water or dried or fermented for several months to produce kæstur hákarl. Traditionally, this is done by burying the meat in boreal ground for 6–8 weeks, which presses the TMAO out of the meat and also results in partial fermentation. The meat is then dug up and hung up in strips to dry for several more months. It is considered a delicacy in Iceland.
The Greenland shark's poisonous flesh has a high urea content, which gave rise to the Inuit legend of Skalugsuak, the first Greenland shark. The legend says that an old woman washed her hair in urine and dried it with a cloth. The cloth blew into the ocean to become Skalugsuak.
The Greenland shark plays a role in cosmologies of the Inuit from the Canadian Eastern Arctic and Greenland. Igloolik Inuit believe that the shark lives within Sedna's urine pot, and consequently its flesh has a urine-like smell, and acts as a helping spirit to shamans.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Somniosus microcephalus.|
|Wikispecies has information related to: Somniosus microcephalus|
- Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group
- Canadian Museum of Nature SV Greenland Shark
- "Somniosus microcephalus". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 23 January 2006.
- Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2006). "Somniosus microcephalus" in FishBase. May 2006 version.
- "Greenland Shark" on As It Happens May 6, 2008; CBC Radio 1(WMV file)