Scientists Squabble Over Dubious ‘Goblin Shark’

In August 2020, a man walking along a Grecian beach spotted what looked like a small, dead shark with an odd-looking face. He picked it up from the sand, placed it on a nearby rock, and snapped a picture.

Two and a half years later, the scientific community still has not reached a consensus over what it was. The group that published the original paper on the find in 2022 deemed it a goblin shark (Mitsukurina owstoni) — a rare, deep-sea animal that had never been found in the Mediterranean before.

But on March 13, a comment from a dissenting group of scientists appeared online. “We have doubts that the specimen [from the 2022 paper] is a natural specimen,” they wrote.

The authors of the original paper fired right back with a reply published the same day. It concluded with an analysis “supporting the naturality of the specimen with no doubt.”

Naturality? The internet thinks it’s a picture of a toy.

That’s also true in many corners of the scientific community. And at a casual pass, one deep-sea ecologist’s comparison between the photo and a toy listed on eBay makes the outlook for authenticity seem grim.

(“A” shows the find, “B” shows an actual juvenile goblin shark. Compare “A” to the picture of the toy in the reply below.)

The confusion hinges on the fact that nobody except the photographer has actually seen the specimen. The gist of the dispute is that it looks so much like a toy.

To the naked eye, it’s harder to find differences between the objects in the two photos than similarities. Color notwithstanding, there’s the shape and relative position of each fin, the protruding mouth, and the wrinkle or seam running from the corner of the mouth to the pectoral fin.

Scientific sparring

Athanasios Anastasiadis of Greece’s University of Patras co-authored the original paper claiming the specimen was real. The paper, called New records of rare species in the Mediterranean Sea, is a roundup of novel species recently found in the area. It qualifies the supposed goblin shark with these characteristics:

“[T]he key external taxonomical characters of the species were identified, including an extremely elongated, flat and blade-like snout; relatively small eyes; highly protrusible jaws; and absence of lower lobe from the tail.”

However, the scientists never actually laid eyes on the specimen. The individual who found it, the paper claimed, “placed [it] on rocks to allow the capture of the best possible photograph.”

The dissenting group drew that into focus: “Providing more than one photograph of the record would be of high value,” they wrote.

That’s partly because it’s hard to glean much fine detail from the fairly low-resolution photo. The scientists thus squabbled over whether the specimen had four or five gill slits (four would prove it fake), the size of its teeth, and even the size of the specimen overall.

The smallest goblin shark ever found is around 80cm long. In its initial paper, the team only stated the find wasn’t bigger than that — but in its later reply, it divulged a best estimate that it was only 17-20cm long.

Many opinions, few witnesses

A litany of shark biologists and other experts gave Gizmodo their opinions on the photo — with few suggestions that the photograph shows a real animal.

Jurgen Pollerspock, a co-author of the challenging comment, blamed the lapse on the paper’s reviewers — not its authors.

“In my opinion, the problem and responsibility lie more with the editor of the journal and the reviewers,” he wrote to Gizmodo. He is “convinced that it was an accident” on the authors’ part.

Emails to Anastasiadis had gone unanswered as of this writing. Meanwhile, the only person to have actually seen the “specimen” is the beachcomber who photographed it: Giannis Papadakis.

If you happen to know Giannis, it might be worth reaching out. Mistaking a plastic toy for an actual goblin shark would be highly unlikely in practice.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.