A fisherman working off the Florida Keys recently caught a bull shark, then opened it up to find that it contained two live fetuses, including one highly unusual one with two heads. The fishermen gave it to scientists, who wrote about it in an article published in the Journal of Fish Biology this week.
The scientists, led by C. Michael Wagner of Michigan State University, said it was the first known case of the phenomenon in bull sharks, and one of only about a half dozen recorded cases of a two-headed shark anywhere.
“In and of itself, this single natural history observation does not tells us anything Earth-shattering about the health of the world’s oceans or populations of bull sharks,” Wagner told Ocean Views via e-mail today.
“It’s simply a rarely observed phenomena that we recorded. Yet, it does capture public attention, and what a great opportunity for journalists like yourself to shine the light on some interesting information that does bear on that very important question.” [Does the two-headed shark teach us anything about the health of the ocean?]
Why Two Heads?
The two-headed bull shark displays a process technically called “axial bifurcation,” in which the embryo doesn’t finish splitting into two separate individuals (twins). This mutation has been seen in other animals, including humans.
According to Wagner’s team, such individuals rarely survive in the wild, since they are at a big disadvantage when it comes to finding food and avoiding predators. In this case, the two-headed bull shark also ended up with a very small body, since so much energy went into growing two heads.
Wagner said the fishermen who found the animal told him it died shortly after being removed from its mother. “It likely would not have survived very long had it been born naturally,” said Wagner.
Studying such rare organisms may help us better understand developmental processes, Wagner added.
Update: Wagner pointed out, in response to a reader question below about sharks not having bones: “It is true that shark skeletons are formed of cartilage, not bone. Shark cartilage is sufficiently dense to be imaged by x-ray. It is a commonly used technique for examining museum collection specimens that are rare, and when there is a desire to keep the specimen undamaged (e.g., see the Smithsonian Institution exhibit on fish diversity).”
Check out this bull shark video from National Geographic’s archives:
Brian Clark Howard covers the environment for National Geographic. He previously served as an editor for TheDailyGreen.com and E/The Environmental Magazine, and has written for Popular Science, TheAtlantic.com, FastCompany.com, PopularMechanics.com, Yahoo!, MSN, and elsewhere. He is the co-author of six books, including Geothermal HVAC, Green Lighting, Build Your Own Small Wind Power System, and Rock Your Ugly Christmas Sweater.