Is This Photo of the Ultra-Rare Goblin Shark Actually a Toy? – DNyuz

Is This Photo of the Ultra-Rare Goblin Shark Actually a Toy?

A controversy is raging within the small but fiercely passionate world of ichthyology (the study of fishes). Depending on who you talk to, either a rare deep-sea shark washed up on the shores of Greece’s Anafi Island in 2020, and marked the first-ever recording of a goblin shark sighting in the Mediterranean Sea; or, some scientists faked the whole discovery using a plastic toy and duped the whole world with some trickery that’s not much more advanced than a simple social media prank.

The fight stems from a paper published in the journal Mediterranean Marine Science last May, which detailed a goblin shark specimen that a citizen scientist stumbled upon while walking along the Greek beach. The paper, authored by three marine biologists from three different universities (two in Greece and one in Scotland), included a photo taken by a citizen scientist depicting an unusually small, gray-blue and remarkably well-preserved goblin shark. This was an amazing find, the kind of thing scientists hope will happen to them in their career.

And for some, it was too good to be true. A few marine scientists raised alarm immediately the photo was released.

“It looks like a very common toy,” Vicky Vasquez, a shark expert at the Pacific Shark Research Center in Monterey, California, told The Daily Beast. In the ensuing kerfuffle, Twitter sleuths pointed out that the shark in the image bore an uncanny resemblance to a goblin shark model manufactured by Italian toymakers DeAgostini, right down to the seam on the side of the mouth.

Marine biologists across the globe have been pushed into picking sides–some who are highly skeptical the goblin fish specimen is the real deal, and some who still maintain that the specimen could be genuine. They stand behind their work and even wrote an additional defense to the paper last week , which pushes back on the notion that they published a model toy in a peer reviewed journal and claimed it was scientific evidence. The Daily Beast did not request an interview with the authors. )

It is hard to believe a single study–and really, a single photograph–has elicited so much sniping in the last year between scientists, a community that’s often portrayed as level-headed, sometimes to the point of dullness. The stakes are very high because of both the nature and the age of disinformation.

“It looks like a very common toy.”

— Vicky Vasquez, Pacific Shark Research Center

Rare as Gold

Goblin sharks, the common name for Mitsukurina owstoni, are a reclusive and somewhat mysterious species. They make their home in the deep ocean, as far down as 1,300 meters (4,300 feet), where light is scarce and the pressure is strong enough to snap human bones. There, they mostly feed on fish, squids and crustaceans, which they snatch up with their razor-sharp retractable jaws.

Fewer than fifty goblin sharks have been scientifically documented, though they occasionally turn up as bycatch in commercial fishing nets. Their range includes the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans, as well as the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists don’t know where or for how long these sharks live.

The new study reports that the goblin shark photo was taken on August 25, 2020, “found by a citizen on Klisidi beach of Anafi Island,” credited to Giannis Papadakis. Papadakis’ identity or the origin of the goblin shark specimen found on Anafi Island is not stated in the paper. (As mentioned, the authors did not respond to questions from The Daily Beast. )

Nevertheless, finding a genuine juvenile goblin shark in the Mediterranean would signal a significant range extension for these benthic behemoths and could even provide tantalizing clues as to where they breed. That is, if the find is real.

Jurgen Pollerspock has doubts.

An independent shark researcher based in Germany, Pollerspock has seen a plethora of deceased sharks over the course of his career. He came across the paper on the Anafi Island goblin shark last July, and added the article to an online shark, ray and chimera research database he helps curate. It was something he forgot about until months later when he had the time and energy to read it.

Something about the discovery struck Pollerspock as… fishy. He told The Daily Beast via email that he had questions about the records after reading through the entire article.

Pollerspock, along with three other shark experts, decided to write into the journal detailing their concerns. Mediterranean Marine Science published their comments last week.

In those comments the researchers pointed out that although the shark in question had four gill openings, goblin sharks can have five. The jaw of the shark was protruding in hunting posture, and not relaxed. It also did not have visible teeth. And its nose had a weird downward droop unlike most goblin sharks’ characteristically stiff, straight snout.

But the biggest red flag they found was that the picture lacked any measurement scale. The authors only vaguely listed the specimen as “not exceed[ing] 80 cm (2. 5 feet) in total length,” which would make it the smallest goblin shark on record. Goblin sharks regularly grow to lengths of 2. 5 meters (8. 5 feet).

“Fishing in the Mediterranean has a long tradition,” Pollerspock said. “It would be a surprise if such a large animal had remained undiscovered until today.”

The original authors didn’t relent in the face of Pollerspock and his co-author’s comments–instead, they doubled down, writing a rebuttal (also published in the same journal) that defended the findings. The authors provided new clarifications meant to address some of the issues, including a more precise measurement of 17-20 cm (just over half a foot) long, and an assertion that the specimen was unusually small because it was embryonic. They chalked the weird nose and teeth up to individual variation, and blamed the extended jaw on stress before death. They claimed that the gill openings were there even if one zooms in.

“Fishing in the Mediterranean has a long tradition. It would be a surprise if such a large animal had remained undiscovered until today.”

— Jurgen Pollerspock, Germany

“The fact that they had a rebuttal is what really, really got me hooked,” said Vasquez. I thought it would be retracted quickly.” This is what happens in most academic fraud cases or misidentifications. The journal removes the paper as soon as qualified experts raise concern. This is what happened in a famous case of fish fraud from the late 1990s, when someone tried to pass a poorly photoshopped picture of a coelacanth off as a new species. In this case, however, Mediterranean Marine Science has let the paper stand. (The journal didn’t respond to comments requests. )

Others were also critical of the rebuttal, especially that it was an embryonic specimen. Chip Cotton, a New York-based marine biologist who specializes on deepwater sharks at SUNY Cobleskill, said that “I don’t believe that argument holds a lot water.” He explained that it’s rare for an embryonic shark to wash up on beaches intact; they’re much more likely to get eaten by hungry marine scavengers, especially in the deep sea. Cotton believes that such an innocent morsel could be eaten before it reaches the shoreline. “The odds are just astronomical,” he told the Daily Beast.

When Cotton first saw the photo, he suspected it might be a cat shark with a fake snout photoshopped onto its face. Cotton has since realized that this specimen could be a toy, with some colour editing. Vasquez also believes the photograph is too stiff to be a true deep-shark. Their skulls are hard, but their bodies and fins can become soft and fragile on the ground.

Playing Defense

Not everyone is convinced the shark is plastic. It was strange to me when I first saw it. But the more I look at it, the more I think it’s an actual specimen,” Glenn Parsons, a marine biologist at the University of Mississippi who helped describe the first documented goblin shark in the Gulf of Mexico two decades ago, told The Daily Beast. The fine white edge on the shark’s fins is a characteristic of many species of shark embryos.

However, if the shark is a model, those white tips could be the result of plastic degradation and sun bleaching, according to reporting by Gizmodo. It’s difficult to determine from one mid-quality image. “You really can’t prove it unless you have it in your hands,” Parsons told the Daily Beast.

Perhaps the biggest worry among scientists isn’t really the fact that the photograph itself might be fake, but the consequences downstream. Phony range extension data might seem harmless, but it can have sweeping consequences. According to Alexa Fredston, a biogeographer at the University of California Santa Cruz, “It could certainly throw off science.” It can have an impact on everything, from the funding of government programs to eco models and even how conservation policies are implemented.

“When I first looked at it, I thought it was odd. But the more I look at it, the more I think it’s an actual specimen.”

— Glenn Parsons, University of Mississippi

Fredston also worries that the dust-up could scare researchers off of crowd-sourced data. She said that thousands of species have been documented and rediscovered through the efforts of citizen scientists. However, peer-reviewed mixes-ups with such data are still rare. “I really hope it doesn’t prevent people from engaging with citizen science.”

But even if the shark is fake, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a case of intentional fraud. Cotton and Vasquez believe that it is possible the authors were too excited about what could have been an amazing discovery and did not do enough research to follow up. They suggested that it might be because they were early-career scientists and felt immense pressure to publish something in an academic journal. It’s like the great white who has to move to survive. Pollerspock believes that the authors of the paper had good intentions, even if they did not follow through with their science.

The post Is This Photo of the Ultra-Rare Goblin Shark Actually a Toy? appeared first on The Daily Beast.