The goblin shark is a very rare, poorly understood, species of deep-sea shark. They are known primarily for their somewhat strange specialized “catapulting” jaws, which they use when feeding. When in action they look quite a bit like the alien from the movie Alien. It almost looks like there is something that lives inside of the sharks mouth that explodes outward to catch prey before returning back into the mouth (there’s video below).
The technical name for the species is Mitsukurina owstoni, and it is the only remaining representative of the Mitsukurinidae family of sharks, a family that originated at least 125 million years ago. Hence, goblin sharks are often referred to as living fossils.
The species doesn’t really look that much like any other living species of shark. It possesses an elongated and flattened snout, with highly protrusible jaws filled with spike-like or nail-like teeth, and a pinkish coloration. Adults goblin sharks typically reach sizes of about 10–13 ft long, though they can also grow much, much larger than that in the right environment. The largest specimen caught in recent times was a 20 foot female caught in the year 2000. They typically live near the “upper continental slopes and submarine canyons around the world at depths greater than 100 meters (330 ft), with mature individuals found deeper than juveniles.”
“Various anatomical features of the goblin shark, such as its flabby body and small fins, suggest that it is sluggish in nature. This species hunts for teleost fishes, cephalopods, and crustaceans both near the sea floor and in the middle of the water column. Its long snout is covered with ampullae of Lorenzini that enable it to sense minute electric fields produced by nearby prey, which it can snatch up by rapidly extending its jaws. Small numbers of goblin sharks are unintentionally caught by deepwater fisheries.”
The species was first scientifically described by the American ichthyologist David Starr Jordan in an 1898 issue of Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences. He recognized that “the peculiar fish not only as a new species but also a new genus and family. He based his account on a 107 cm (42 in) long immature male caught in the Kuroshio Current near Yokohama, Japan. The specimen had been acquired by shipmaster and naturalist Alan Owston, who had given it to Professor Kachiki Mitsukuri at the University of Tokyo, who in turn had brought it to Jordan. Thus, Jordan named the shark Mitsukurina owstoni in honor of these two men. The common name ‘goblin shark’ is a translation of its old Japanese name tenguzame, a tengu being a Japanese mythical creature often depicted with a long nose and red face. Another name for this species is ‘elfin shark’.”
The goblin shark has been captured by fishermen in all of the world’s major oceans, which suggests that possess a wide global distribution. “In the Atlantic Ocean, it has been recorded from the northern Gulf of Mexico, Suriname, French Guiana, and southern Brazil in the west, and France, Portugal, Madeira, and Senegal in the east. In the Indo-Pacific, it has been found off South Africa, Mozambique, Japan, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand. There is a single known eastern Pacific specimen, collected off southern California. This species is most often found over the upper continental slope at depths of 270–960 m (890–3,150 ft). It has been caught as deep as 1,300 m (4,300 ft), and a tooth has been found lodged in an undersea cable at a depth of 1,370 m (4,490 ft). Adults inhabit greater depths than juveniles. Immature goblin sharks frequent the submarine canyons off southern Japan at depths of 100–350 m (330–1,150 ft), with individuals occasionally wandering into inshore waters as shallow as 40 m (130 ft).”
Despite their perhaps “fearsome” appearance, they are generally rather sluggish (with the exception of their spring-like jaws.). They are known to often fall prey to blue sharks, the “wolves of the sea”.
As an interesting note, while they are only very rarely caught as bycatch during trawling, there was an isolated incident in April 2003 where more than a hundred goblin sharks were caught off of northwestern Taiwan shortly after a major earthquake.