Rare angel shark arrives at Museum

30 July 2010

A rare angel shark, Squatina squatina, caught off Porthcawl in the Bristol Channel and transported to Plymouth Fish Market, has been brought to the Natural History Museum this week.

The endangered angel shark was accidentally caught by fishermen this month and then spotted in the fish market by staff from Plymouth’s Marine Management Organisation.

Collecting a shark

Museum fish experts were informed and travelled to Plymouth to collect the 16.7kg 123cm-long fish. They brought the frozen specimen back to London by car where it will join the important research collections.

Museum fish curator Oliver Crimmen says, 'It’s not every day that we receive a call to pick up an angel shark, so we were only too pleased to accept the Marine Management Organisation’s offer to pick up the individual in Plymouth.'

Oliver describes collecting the shark, 'The angel shark was perfectly agreeable company in the 4-hour car journey having been deep frozen and sealed in a large polythene bag.'  

Museum fish curator James Maclaine who helped collect the shark adds, 'I have collected several small porpoises and dolphins for the Museum before and compared to those, the angel shark was, well, angelic.' 

Endangered angel shark

Many angel shark species are threatened worldwide. They are intensively fished for their flesh, for their liver oil and even for their skin which can be made into a kind of leather. Many are on the IUCN Critically Endangered Red List.

Once fairly common in the seas around Britain, their numbers have dwindled dramatically. Plymouth-based fish expert, Douglas Herdson says, 'By the 1990s the situation had changed and they became exceeding rare. Since 1998 only 2 or 3 specimens have been seen on Plymouth fish market.'

Important addition to the collections

The angel shark specimen will be an important addition as there are only 13 in the fish collection that comprises around half a million specimens.

Also, more than half of those are over 100 years old (the oldest was registered in 1844). Along with the other specimens, it will be available for use worldwide by scientific researchers.

Preparation of specimen

Before the angel shark is added to the collection, it will have a tissue sample taken so that its DNA can be obtained for any future research. This will be preserved in pure ethanol and then frozen at -80°C.

Angel shark facts

Angel sharks are an unusual group of sharks belonging to the genus Squatina. They look like something half way between a shark and a ray.

Their mouths are at the fronts of their heads and their bodies are shark-shaped, but their pectoral and pelvic fins are greatly expanded like the wings of a ray.

There are 16 known species of angel shark found in temperate and tropical seas worldwide. A single species is known from British waters, Squatina squatina.

Angel sharks are bottom-dwellers, burying themselves in the sand or mud, and lying in wait for passing prey. They are particularly fond of flatfishes. A clue to their diet is given by their sharp pointed teeth, designed for grabbing and holding their prey.

Their eggs hatch within the body of the mother who later gives birth to between nine and twenty live young, a process known as ovoviparity. Like most sharks, they are slow-reproducing, which makes them more vulnerable to extinction if over-exploited.

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