If you live in near-constant darkness, it doesn’t matter what you look like. At least, that’s what the creatures of the deep ocean seem to believe.
Take the goblin shark, for instance. With its translucent skin, long, protruding snout, and jaws full of crooked teeth, it looks like something straight out of a horror movie.
Goblin sharks live so far beneath the ocean’s surface that they hardly ever see the light of day and rarely come into contact with humans.
The only goblin sharks ever seen by humans are those that have been accidentally entangled in fishing nets, and few of them survive the experience.
Living solitary, secretive lives in the ocean’s depths, goblin sharks have escaped scrutiny, and our scientific understanding of this bizarre species remains extremely limited.
Nevertheless, we’re going to share what facts we have about this fascinating, albeit ugly, shark.
What Does a Goblin Shark Look Like?
The goblin shark’s appearance is unmistakable and more than a little scary.
Not only are its jaws filled with scraggly teeth, but it can also push those jaws forward so far that they equal around “8.6–9.4% of the total length of the shark.”
What makes the goblin shark even more striking is its elongated snout that extends even further than its protruding jaws.
Goblin sharks aren’t particularly large, with fully grown adults measuring around 12 feet long.
As they live in the dark depths of the deep ocean, goblin sharks have little need for color, and their skin is translucent.
When pulled from the ocean, they appear red or pink, as their underlying blood vessels become visible through their see-through skin.
Unlike pelagic sharks that swim long distances, goblin sharks have rather flabby bodies, more suited to lounging around just above the sea floor than completing trans-Atlantic migrations.
Their long snouts may look perfect for rummaging around in the sand looking for prey, but they’re too soft and mushy to be of any real benefit in that regard.
Like most sharks, the goblin shark has small eyes that researchers believe enable it to “detect any possible flicker that may giveaway possible prey.”
Goblin Shark Taxonomy
Despite appearing to have very little in common, the goblin shark belongs to the same taxonomic order as the great white.
Both these shark species are Lamniformes, or mackerel sharks, along with a few other unusual contenders, like the basking shark.
When the goblin shark was first discovered in 1898, it was recognized as a new genus and family, as well as a new species.
Sometimes referred to as a “living fossil,” the goblin shark is the only living representative of a 125-million-year-old lineage.
Belonging to the Mitsukurinidae family, the goblin shark, or Mitsukurina owstoni is all alone in the world.
All other members of this family when extinct millions of years ago and have been identified only by their fossils.
One of its closest living relatives is the equally intriguing frilled shark, which similarly spends much of its time in the dark depths of the ocean.
Despite having no family members left in the ocean, the goblin shark resembles the grey nurse shark or sand tiger shark. However, the moment it protrudes its jaws, its true identity becomes abundantly clear.
It’s not the goblin shark’s protruding jaws that earn it its Japanese nickname, but its prominent snout.
The goblin shark is known as the tenguzame in Japanese, with tengu being a mythical, goblin-like creature with a long nose and zame meaning shark.
Goblin Shark Characteristics
Living in almost complete darkness isn’t easy for anyone, but goblin sharks have several characteristics that help them to survive.
For starters, it, like many other sharks, has a network of electroreceptors in its snout and face.
Known as the ampullae of Lorenzini, this system of sensing organs enables the goblin shark to detect electrical signals emitted by its prey.
As a result, it can hunt in complete darkness, even though its believed to have very poor eyesight.
Goblin sharks are largely solitary, spending much of their lives drifting above the seabed, waiting to ambush their unsuspecting prey.
The goblin shark can hang in the water, exerting very little energy.
According to Clinton Duffy, a conservation biologist with the New Zealand Department of Conservation, the lack of muscle and other connective tissue makes the goblin shark’s body lighter, allowing it “to approach neutral buoyancy, which further reduces energy needs.”
While some mackerel sharks race through the oceans at 50kph, the goblin shark has little need for speed. It rarely exceeds 20kph but can extend its jaw like a slingshot.
The goblin shark’s jaws jut out at a speed of “3.1 meters per second,” which is faster than most snakes can strike.
Another characteristic of the goblin shark is its abundance of teeth, sporting around 53 rows just on its upper jaw. It also has a wider variety of teeth than most sharks, with each one designed for a specific purpose.
The front teeth are long and narrow, making them extremely effective at trapping prey. Towards the back of the jaw, it has smaller, flattened teeth, which it uses to crush its unsuspecting victims.
Goblin Shark Life Cycle
The goblin shark lives a largely secretive life, so deep in the ocean that scientists and researchers have had little opportunity to study it.
Like many shark species, goblin sharks are ovoviviparous, meaning they lay eggs that hatch inside their bodies.
Some months later, the female shark gives birth to a small litter of live young, although the exact length of the goblin shark’s gestation period is unknown.
When born, goblin shark pups are thought to be around 32 inches long. Like many sharks, they receive little parental care and are born ready to hunt.
Juvenile goblin sharks tend to stay in shallower water than their adult counterparts and are frequently found “at depths between 330 and 1,150 feet.”
Although scientists believe that males reach sexual maturity by the time they’re around 16 years old, “the age for female sexual maturation is not known.” We also only have estimates for the goblin shark’s lifespan, which scientists suspect, can live for up to 60 years old.
Where Do Goblin Sharks Live?
Despite being rarely seen by humans, goblin sharks enjoy a wide global distribution, inhabiting all three major oceans.
Most goblin sharks have been found off the coast of Japan, with a few other specimens cropping up around Australia, South Africa, and Europe.
For a long time, scientists believed the goblin shark to be dedicated bottom-dwellers, but recent studies found that goblin sharks feed primarily on mid-water species, suggesting that it’s more of a benthopelagic species.
Benthopelgaic species live and feed near the bottom of the ocean but also stray into mid-water ranges to hunt for food.
The preferred habitat of the goblin shark is along the upper continental slopes, around seamounts, and in submarine canyons.
Although juveniles prefer shallower water over mature adults, it’s rare to find a goblin shark in water less than 330-feet deep.
Some researchers even believe that the goblin shark can survive “for short periods of time” in depths up to 4,270 feet deep, and a goblin shark tooth was once found some 4,490 feet below the surface.
Goblin Shark Behavior
Goblin sharks are rarely seen, so we only have a limited understanding of their behavior.
Scientists believe them to be largely solitary and suspect that, like other sharks, they are more active at dusk at dawn, spending their days resting. Some even suspect that they move fairly close to the surface under the cover of darkness.
Goblin sharks don’t sleep like we do but can stop moving for a while if they need to take a breather. Like most bottom-dwelling sharks, goblin sharks have spiracles behind the eyes through which they breathe when at rest.
The lack of muscle in the goblin shark’s flabby body suggests that it’s a rather sluggish hunter that spends a lot of time waiting for prey to come within striking distance.
The goblin sharks live in deep water, far from contact with humans, making them relatively harmless.
Goblin sharks have rubbery skin rather than denticles, so lack the protection those tooth-like structures provide.
As a result, they may be less willing to take on potentially dangerous prey, like other sharks and stingrays.
What Do Goblin Sharks Eat?
The diet of the goblin shark is similar to most other marine predators and is largely comprised of fish, crustaceans, and squid. While its diet is similar to that of other sharks, its method of hunting is unique.
Rather than attempting to pursue its prey, this slow-moving shark drifts about waiting for it to come close enough that it can trap it in its protruding jaws.
Not only can the goblin shark shoot its jaws out in front of it, but it can also open them to 111 degrees, so it can swallow prey of varying sizes, from small shrimp to large fish and squid.
Goblin sharks have another unusual adaptation that enables them to take large prey – they use suction to draw the victim into their mouths.
The fast expansion of the jaw is thought to create some suction, which is further aided by the goblin shark’s “highly mobile basihyal.”
A basihyal is a tongue-like structure, but is made out of cartilage rather than muscle. When the goblin shark fires its jaws out at its prey, it depresses the basihyal “providing even more suction.”
A study of a goblin shark found in the Gulf of Mexico suggested that this species is benthopelagic, preying primarily on species found at the bottom of the ocean.
Other studies indicate that goblin sharks predate mid-water species, such as “mesopelagic squid.”
If both studies are correct, the researchers concluded, it may be due to size segregation, in which “larger specimens are more benthic in nature.”
What Hunts Goblin Sharks?
Very little descends deep enough to trouble the goblin shark, although some evidence suggests that blue sharks will prey on them if the opportunity arises.
Blue sharks are wide-ranging pelagic sharks that can tolerate depths over 650 feet deep.
Although humans have a devastating impact on many shark species, the goblin shark largely avoids the dangers of commercial fishing operations.
Even our pollution has yet to impact the goblin shark significantly, although “there has been evidence of goblin sharks eating garbage” found on the sea floor.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the goblin shark is not endangered and is currently listed as a species of the least concern.
We still have much to learn about the goblin shark and its strange, watery existence.
Spending its life in the darkness of the deep ocean, the goblin shark is rarely seen by humans, and when it is, it rarely survives long enough for us to study it enough to start to understand this unusual species.
With no living relatives, the goblin shark is a remnant of a long-extinct Mitsukurinidae family, which dates back some 125 million years.
Its strange, somewhat prehistoric appearance, makes it a formidable hunter, despite having a top speed of just 20kph.
Obviously, the need for speed is irrelevant when you can shoot your jaws out of your mouth at speeds of around 3 meters per second.
Currently, the goblin shark lives a relatively peaceful existence, undisturbed by humans and their pollution.
It is one of the few shark species we haven’t impacted with our commercial fishing, pollutants, and noise, largely thanks to its preferred habitat being so uninhabitable for humans.
How long this unusual specimen will survive in our turbulent world remains to be seen, but if its legacy as a living fossil is anything to go by, it could still be swimming in our oceans long after the last human has disappeared from Earth.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.