Paul Clerkin, a graduate researcher at the Pacific Shark Research Center of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, specializes in studying rare and deep-sea sharks and rays. In Shark Week 2015’s Alien Sharks: Close Encounters, he became the first person ever to tag a megamouth shark with a satellite tag. Paul is currently at work describing some of the 15 new species he discovered in the Indian Ocean.
We caught up with Paul in June 2016 to get a better understanding of alien sharks and how he’s able to discover the shark species that no one else can.
What qualifies a shark as an alien shark? In my opinion, an alien shark is a shark that has adapted to an environment so different from our own that they appear alien to us. These are often deep-sea species that have developed some outlandish feature to survive in such a harsh environment.
What about alien sharks interests you? Everything! The deep sea is our planet’s final frontier and it is ruled by sharks. Sharks are an immensely diverse group, and they come in all shapes and sizes. I am fascinated by all the different species of sharks, where they live, what they eat, how they survive. Perhaps the most interesting part is how many species are still being discovered even in our modern age.
What are some facts about alien sharks that people should know about? Most alien sharks are extremely poorly known. They are often known from only a single specimen, which means we don’t know anything about how old they get, what they eat, where they live, or when and how they reproduce. Without this information it is impossible to protect them from human fishing practices. Research on alien sharks is an important step needed to protect our oceans and their inhabitants.
Can you tell us a little bit about ghost sharks and what makes them so unique? Ghost sharks are one of my favorite groups of cartilaginous fish. They aren’t true sharks, but are close relatives. They have cartilaginous skeletons like sharks, but they lack multiple gill openings and have 3 pairs of plate-like teeth instead of rows of teeth. The group is mostly deep-sea dwelling and has large, reflective eyes, long tapering bodies, and huge venomous spines. They are beautiful creatures, and we know almost nothing about them.
In Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss, you discovered a new species of ghost shark. Has there been any additional discoveries since then? Yes! That particular species has proven to be very interesting with different color morphs in each region. Other new species from the trip include Lanternsharks, Demon Catsharks, and Sleeper Sharks. Each of these species are super interesting, unique, and new to science. I am working to publish papers describing each shark so we have an account of the species and a name to refer to them by. Policymakers can’t protect a species if it doesn’t have a name.
Describe some of your biggest accomplishments relating to shark research. My research has taken me to the Indian Ocean, Bering Sea, Southeast Atlantic, Philippines Sea, and across the Pacific in pursuit of rare and new shark species. One highlight was witnessing a False Catshark give birth in the wild. This species is very rare. They are oophagous (the pups eat each other in the womb), and have what could be the largest pups in the shark world. At birth, the pup I saw was about 5 feet long. That’s one big baby!