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U.K. scientists plead for return of rare shark’s head, promise ‘no judging’

A rare smalltooth sand tiger shark washed up on Lepe Beach. (Solent News & Photo Agency)
5 min

LONDON — Scientists in Britain are searching for a rather unusual missing object: a rare shark’s head, chopped off and taken away after the fish washed up on a beach.

Conservationists and experts are so desperate to find the head that they’ve even promised whoever took it there’d be no judgment and that they could have it back after scientists finish examining it.

That’s because the shark has been identified as a smalltooth sand tiger shark. Not only is it a rare species, but conservationists say it is seldom seen so far north in the northeastern Atlantic, making its discovery in Hampshire, southern England, one that can provide valuable information about the species.

The shark had already made headlines once before its death, when a bold local woman saw the shark stranded in shallow waters off Lepe Beach and jumped in, pulling the shark by its tail into deeper waters so it could swim to safety.

But the shark did not survive for long, as locals discovered its body washed up on the beach on Saturday. Biologists, however, quickly became excited as they realized that the shark was a rare discovery — and enlisted the help of local residents, including TV historian Dan Snow, to help secure the remains for scientists to examine.

Unfortunately, by the time the locals returned for the shark’s body, “trophy hunters” had already “chopped the head off and the dorsal fin and the tail,” Snow, who is a resident of the area and had seen the shark before it was beheaded, said in a video posted on Twitter.

“[It is] really disappointing because scientists and marine biologists sent us down there to try and secure the carcass of this once-in-a-lifetime find in British waters,” Snow said.

“It is not illegal to take parts from dead fish washed ashore so there’s no judging but if you took the head please get in touch, let the scientists have a look and then it’s yours to keep,” he added.

Snow later posted a video of himself gathering the shark’s organs for the London-based international conservation charity, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which will examine the remains.

Some of the shark’s internal organs had also been removed, said Rob Deaville, project manager for a ZSL program that investigates when sharks and other marine animals get washed up around England and Wales, in a telephone interview.

Deaville said that researchers could still glean some information from the remains — including about the shark’s genetics, any contaminants it was exposed to, and potentially even its dietary habits — but noted that the investigation would no longer focus on the cause of death.

Ben Garrod, professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of East Anglia, said the shark’s head would have allowed researchers to examine the brain as well as the chemical composition of the teeth, which would have given an insight into where the shark had grown up. Even its eye lens could have provided information about its life history and ecology, Hannah Rudd, a marine scientist at Shark Hub UK, said via email.

“It’s like finding a Roman bust, beautifully preserved, and then someone’s taken the head and the arms off — well, first of all you don’t know who it is,” Garrod said in a phone interview.

“No judgment, but you have much more of a chance of contributing to something really exciting, really important, by giving the head back — so if you did want to drop it off outside an aquarium or a fish and chip shop in the area, it would be great.”

According to the Shark Trust, a British organization focusing on the study and conservation of sharks, the distribution of smalltooth sand tigers in the northeastern Atlantic only extends to the top of the Bay of Biscay, on France’s western coast. Even within that area the sharks are only seldom seen, it said in a statement, “making this report an exceptional one.”

“The head in particular holds the key to unlocking intricate details of the sharks life, even from before birth, so we’d welcome news of its whereabouts!” the trust said.

Climate change might be playing a role in reports of larger-than-normal fish in unexpected areas. (Video: John Farrell, Brian Monroe/The Washington Post)

Smalltooth sand tiger sharks grow up to four meters (around 13 feet) in length and are usually found toward the seabed. The Guardian reported that the one spotted on Lepe Beach was six feet long.

While the sighting of this shark has not been linked to climate change, a range of studies have shown the impact of rising temperatures on the world’s oceans. Last year, ocean heat broke records for the third consecutive year, reaching the highest temperature since reliable measurements began in 1958.

Oceans surged to another record-high temperature in 2022

One study from 2022 found that around a third of marine animals could vanish within 300 years if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, while another from 2014 found that the acidification of the ocean was disrupting sharks’ sense of smell — and impacting their ability to hunt.

“With climate change, with changes in biodiversity loss, it might be that this particular type of shark is replacing an existing species in that area, it might be that it’s moving into new waters because of climate change,” Garrod said. “We don’t know any of these things because we don’t have the whole shark.”