Two-Headed Shark Fetus Netted by Fisherman

It's one of the rare examples of the phenomenon in sharks.

When a fisherman caught a bull shark recently off the Florida Keys, he came across an unlikely surprise: One of the shark's live fetuses had two heads.

The fisherman kept the odd specimen, and shared it with scientists, who described it in a study published online today (March 25) in the Journal of Fish Biology. It's one of the very few examples of a two-headed shark ever recorded -- there about six instances in published reports -- and the first time this has been seen in a bull shark, said Michael Wagner, a study co-author and researcher at Michigan State University.

Technically called "axial bifurcation," the deformity is a result of the embryo beginning to split into two separate organisms, or twins, but doing so incompletely, Wagner told OurAmazingPlanet. It's a very rare mutation that occurs across different animals, including humans.

"Halfway through the process of forming twins, the embryo stops dividing," he said.

The two-headed fetus likely wouldn't have lived for very long in the wild, he said. "When you're a predator that needs to move fast to catch other fast-moving fish ... that'd be nearly impossible with this mutation," he said. [See the two-headed shark.]

Wagner said the description of the deformed shark may someday help better understand how these deformities arise in sharks and other animals.

Two-headed snakes and turtles can be bought from certain specialty breeders, and there is a small market for such creatures, Wagner said.

Several of the few examples of two-headed sharks available today come from museum specimens from the late 1800s, when deformed animals and other macabre curiosities fetched high prices, he said.

Another reason the two-headed shark likely wouldn't have survived: its small body. "It had very developed heads, but a very stunted body," Wagner said. There's only so much energy that can go into the body's development, and it went into the shark's double noggins, he added.

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A radiograph shows the fetus of a two-headed bull shark caught off the coast of Florida.

Sept. 5, 2012

-- Five rays and sharks are receiving priority attention at this week's IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Jeju, Republic of Korea. The congress is the world's largest conservation event. One of the five sharks is the porbeagle, shown here. Porbeagles are vulnerable globally, and are classified as critically endangered in the Northeast Atlantic. Their low reproductive capacity combined with over-fishing has led to severe population declines over several parts of its range. "Sharks and rays have traveled the Earth for more than 400 million years," said Dr. Cristián Samper, president and CEO of the Wildlife Conservation Society and keynote speaker at the Jeju congress. "Yet, in only recent decades, many of these species have become threatened from overfishing and, in some instances, have disappeared entirely from major portions of their range." He added, "The potential loss of one of only two groups of the world's living fishes is a crisis the world community must take decisive action to address. We are calling for governments around the world to vigorously support CITES international trade regulations and strengthen fisheries management and protection measures for shark and ray species. We cannot continue to allow the destruction of these wonders of evolution."

Manta Rays Fate Worse Than Sharks

The oceanic whitetip shark is critically endangered in the Northwest and Central Atlantic Ocean. It's frequently sought after for its fins, used to make shark fin soup. Usually the rest of the dead or dying shark is then tossed back into the sea. Andrew Brierley, a University of St. Andrews marine ecologist, told Discovery News that when sharks like this die off, the deaths can cause a domino effect of other ecosystem losses. Shellfish, for example, may go into decline because they are consumed more by predators that the sharks would normally prey upon. "The trophic cascade brought about by the increasing demand for shark fin soup has not only left once economically valuable bivalve fisheries in crisis, but has precipitated an ecological and culinary bankruptcy," explained Brierley.

Scalloped hammerhead sharks are endangered all around the globe. This tropical species forms large migratory schools at certain times of the year. The aggregating behavior, distinct from that of other sharks, makes the shark particularly vulnerable to fishing. "We estimate that many millions of sharks are killed annually through both legal and illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing for the trade in fins, the prime ingredient in shark fin soup," said Dr. Rachel Graham, director of WCS's Gulf and Caribbean Sharks and Rays Program. "The high price for fins has caused the global shark fishery to expand far beyond what is sustainable. The need for international regulation and enforcement has never been greater."

Shark Paradise Found

Many rays, such as these, are also in peril. The Wildlife Conservation Society and over 35 government agencies and NGO partners at the congress additionally highlighted population loss problems associated with so-called "devil rays," which feed on planktonic crustaceans. Small schooling fishes become trapped on their specialized gill rakers. Rays are frequently captured in target fisheries and as bycatch across much of their range. One reason is that the gill rakers are dried and exported for the Asian medicinal market.

The reef manta ray, shown here, is among the world's largest fishes. Both it and the giant manta ray can grow several feet across. They are slow growing, however, typically giving birth to only one pup every two to three years. They are migratory and occur in small, highly fragmented populations that are sparsely distributed across the world’s tropics. Manta rays are captured in targeted fisheries and incidentally as bycatch. In addition, manta rays are used for human consumption, shark bait, and -- as for devil rays -- are increasingly sought for their gill rakers. "The international trade in shark and ray products, including fins, meat, and other body parts, is driving shark and ray fisheries around the world, and most of these are unmanaged or only minimally managed," said Dr. John Robinson, WCS's executive vice president for Conservation and Science. "Lack of controls on fisheries and international trade puts species at risk, but also jeopardizes sustainable fisheries, ecosystems, and food security." The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora will meet in Thailand in March 2013.

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