If you watched Jeopardy! last week you may recall one particular clue that stood out to the nature-lovers among us:
“A very old vertebrate the Greenland shark takes nearly 150 years to reach this; for humans it’s around age 10 or 11”
The correct response: What is puberty?!
The Greenland shark, known in the Greenlandic native language of Kalaallisut as eqalussuaq, is a remarkable creature. You might imagine, if it takes the shark 150 years to reach puberty, the creature must live an extraordinarily long life and you would be right. The Greenland shark is the world’s longest-living vertebrate; their lifespans are estimated to range between 300 and 500 years!
Despite the scale of the photo above, which makes it look like a freshwater fish, Somniosus microcephalus is also one of the largest species of sharks in the world. The average individual reaches 21 feet in length and weighs in at over a ton (2,200 pounds). Just like our recent study, the nano chameleon, Greenland shark males are, unusually, smaller than females.
As the name implies, this shark lives mainly in the northern reaches of the world. They are apex predators of these waters, typically munching on anything from small fish and eels to other sharks and seals. But the shark’s eating method is not only bizarre, but it has created a bizarre record of bizarre stomach contents.
The shark is slow and, thus, looks for sleeping prey. When they near a dozing potential meal, they open giant buccal cavities (the hole food goes into, AKA the mouth), which creates enough suction to draw in the prey. Because of this method of ensnarement, the sharks can often ingest organisms whole.
The Greenland shark has been found with polar bear parts, moose parts, and even whole reindeer in their intestinal tract. They are willing to scavenge anything they find, which explains how terrestrial beings might end up shark dinner. According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, a Greenland shark could easily ingest a full human being, but that’s not their speed. No record exists of a human being vacuumed into a Greenland shark. Perhaps it’s because we don’t like cold water.
It gets weirder. The species is slow – its cruising speed is 1.6 miles per hour – yet it somehow ingests faster food. It also engages in its nutritional pursuits while largely, if not completely, blind. A parasite, Ommatokoita elongata, attaches to the Greenland shark’s eyes, damaging them to blindness. Thanks to a keen sense of smell, this predicament does not hinder the shark.
As if this creature couldn’t get more interesting, it has some rather, uh, odd Inuit legends attached to it.
Back in the day, an old woman washed her hair in urine. She then dried it with a cloth. A wind blew the cloth into the ocean, where it transformed into Skalugsuak, the first Greenland shark.
In another, a young girl tells her father she wants to marry a bird. Instead of sanctioning the ceremony between a human and an animal, the father kills the bird and throws his daughter into the sea from a kayak. She grabs onto the vessel, so he cuts off her fingers. The digits become the creatures of the ocean and the rest of her body becomes the goddess Sedna. The Greenland shark lives in Sedna’s urine pot. The shark is tasked with gaining revenge on Sedna’s father, which he achieves one day by capsizing the kayak. He then eats the man.
Why does he need to live in the urine pot? Why does a woman wash her hair with urine? I don’t know. But I do know that the Greenland shark is associated with urine because its flesh has high contents of urea. Eating the flesh of the shark is toxic. Some crazy people still eat it, burying the flesh in the ground for six to eight weeks, allowing it to ferment, which removes the toxic parts. In Iceland, they call the meal kæstur hákarl and consider it a delicacy.
I really want to visit Iceland, but I have to say I think I will pass on the kæstur hákarl.
It is fascinating to think a Greenland shark could be swimming around right now that is twice as old as the United States. I feel I just scratched the surface on this incredible animal and its story. Be sure to read some of the in-depth articles below!
Further Reading and Exploration
Greenland Shark Research Organization – Official Website
These Ridiculously Long-Lived Sharks Are Older Than the United States, and Still Living It Up – Smithsonian Magazine
The World’s Most Ancient, Elusive Sharks Were Finally Caught on Video – Smithsonian Magazine
272-Year-Old Shark Is Longest-Lived Vertebrate on Earth – National Geographic
400-year-old Greenland shark ‘longest-living vertebrate’ – BBC