At the end of 2021, there were 512 recognized species of sharks and a further 23 pending approval.
When we think of sharks, we almost immediately think of a great white with its five-foot-wide mouth full of 3-inch-long serrated teeth. We hardly ever envisage a cute little creature that could fit in the palm of your hand, but they are out there.
In this article, we’re going to turn our backs on the apex predators of the oceans and focus on the smallest shark species in the world.
Many of these little critters spend their time in deep waters of up to 6,500 feet and haven’t managed to attract the same level of attention as the larger shark species that frequent the shallow waters close to shore.
We know very little about some of these unusual shark species, except that a bite from one of these won’t cause too much damage!
How We Classified The Smallest Sharks Species
It’s almost impossible to say which is the smallest shark in the world, as we have so little evidence.
In some instances, scientists have only found and studied a single specimen, making it difficult to draw comparisons.
To make our list as accurate as possible, we used both the species’ average size and maximum length to assess which was the tiniest of the different types of small sharks.
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The results were surprising, especially as they suggest that none of the species currently holding the Guinness world record is currently the smallest shark in the world.
We found a shark so small that it knocked the “most likely contender,” the dwarf lanternshark, off the number-one spot.
The 10 Smallest Shark Species In The World
|Dwarf Lantern Shark||Etmopterus perryi||7.4”||6.3”||8.3”||6.85”|
|Spined Pygmy Shark||Squaliolus laticaudus||7.8”||5.9”||8.7”||6.85”|
|Pale Catshark||Apristurus sibogae||unknown||unknown||8.27”||unknown|
|Green Lanternshark||Etmopterus virens||9.4”||8.2”||10”||8.8”|
|Pygmy Ribbontail Catshark||Eridacnis radcliffei||6.3”||7.4”||9.4”||6.85”|
|Granular Dogshark||Centroscyllium granulatum||10.1”||7.9”||11”||9”|
|Panama Ghost Catshark||Apristurus stenseni||9.8”||8.2”||18”||9”|
|African Lanternshark||Etmopterus polli||9.4”||9”||11.8”||9.2”|
|Lollipop Catshark||Cephalurus cephalus||9.4”||11”||14.4”||10.2”|
|American Pocket Shark||Mollisquama mississippiensis||Unknown||Unknown||Known||5.5”|
#1 American Pocket Shark
This rare and elusive member of the kitefin shark family is the only one of its type to have ever been seen.
One of only two members of the genus Mollisquama, the American Pocket Shark, or Mollisquama mississippiensis, is literally small enough to slip into your pocket.
The only specimen ever found measured just 5.5” long and more closely resembles a whale than a shark.
Like many small shark species, the American Pocket shark is bioluminescent, with clusters of light-producing photophores covering its body. It also has a couple of tiny pockets filled with luminous fluid, which is why it was named a pocket shark.
While some sharks use their bioluminescence for camouflage, researchers believe the pocket shark uses its to attract prey. The glowing liquid it secretes from its pockets attracts the prey while the tiny predator remains practically invisible until the moment it attacks.
Little more is known about this “tiny little bulbous luminescent shark,” which, one of the researchers involved in the project points out, “shows us how little we actually know.”
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#2 Dwarf Lantern shark
Lantern sharks are some of the smallest known sharks in the world, and the dwarf lantern shark currently holds the world record for the smallest, alongside the spined pygmy and pygmy ribbontail catshark.
These tiny sharks hang out in the deep waters of the Caribbean Sea, far below the range targeted by commercial fisheries. Drifting around in waters of 2,000 feet deep, the dwarf lantern shark averages 6.85” in length and reaches a maximum of just 8.3”.
This shark species is surprisingly cute with its big eyes and toothy grin, although it’s probably doesn’t look like that to the shrimp or small fish that make up its diet. The dwarf lantern shark doesn’t have any pockets, but it does use its bioluminescence to attract prey, among other things.
Lantern sharks also use their bioluminescence as camouflage, lighting up their bellies to match the light coming down from the surface.
In other words, use counter-illumination to ensure they cast no shadows and are therefore invisible from below.
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#3 Spined Pygmy Shark
Measuring around 6.85” long, the spined pygmy shark is roughly the same size as the American pocket shark and the dwarf lanternshark.
It has a maximum length of 8.7”, so can be slightly larger than either of our top two small sharks, which is why we relegated it to third place.
Not only is the spined pygmy shark small, but it’s also unique. This is the only shark species that has a fin spine on its first dorsal fin but none on its second. On the female, this spine is covered by a layer of skin, but in males, it remains exposed.
Through a process known as “photophore countershading,” the spined pygmy shark uses bioluminescence as camouflage.
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It, therefore, has a dense covering of “well-developed photophores” on its ventral side or belly, but very few on its dorsal surface.
The spined pygmy shark is a tropical species of pelagic shark found throughout the Atlantic and western Pacific Oceans. It’s a “diel vertical migrator” that spends most of the day in shallower waters of around 1,600ft deep before moving to deeper waters at night.
#4 Pale Catshark
Finding any information about this rare shark species is extremely challenging, so whether it deserves a place on our list is difficult to ascertain.
The only pale catshark ever caught was found in the deep waters of Indonesia’s Makassar Straits and measured just 8.27 inches. Researchers believe this representative was a juvenile, so it’s probably a little bigger when it reaches maturity.
We can assume that the pale catshark shares several characteristics with other members of the Scyliorhinidae family.
It is probably oviparous and lays several pairs of eggs. It’s also likely to be nocturnal. Researchers also believe that catsharks sleep together in groups during the day.
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#5 Pygmy Ribbontail Catshark
Another small shark species with an average length of 6.85”, the pygmy ribbontail catshark is both diminutive and elusive.
Like our other smaller sharks, this species prefers deep waters of up to 2,500 feet. Although the pygmy ribbontail is threatened by deep-water shrimp trawlers, researchers suspect that it manages to “avoid population devastation by retreating below the depths capable of being trawled.”
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Growing up to 9.4” long, this small shark feeds on crustaceans and small bony fish. It is one of the ovoviviparous shark species, which means the embryos feed only on eggs and do not carnivorously feast on their siblings.
#6 Green Lanternshark
Slightly larger than the dwarf lanternshark, the green variety averages between 8.2” and 9.4” when mature and reaches a maximum length of 10”.
Despite its size, the green lantern shark is feisty and aggressive. Hunting in gangs, these small sharks prey on much larger species, like squid and octopus.
Scientists have had more opportunities to study this species as it’s a more common by-catch of commercial shipping operations than many of our other small shark types.
These bioluminescent sharks live in water between 1,200 and 3,000 feet deep in the Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and the Gulf of Mexico.
#7 Granular Dogfish Shark
Very little is known about this small shark species, as only one specimen has ever been found.
Caught at 1476 feet off the coast of the Falkland Islands, this granular dogfish measured 11” long and was brown and black.
It gets its name from the grainy texture and appearance of its skin. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species currently lists the granular dogfish shark as vulnerable.
#8 Panama Ghost Catshark
Some consider this rare shark species to be the “third-smallest species of shark known to humans.” At some point, it probably was, but as more small species have been discovered, it’s been forced down the list.
This small shark species is only found in the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Panama, and averages around 9” in length, although it can grow up to 18”.
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Again, we know very little about the species, although scientists speculate that it lives in deep water between 3,000 and 3198 feet.
Other better-known varieties of ghost catshark are oviparous deep-water dwellers, and we can theorize that the Panama ghost catshark shares these traits.
#9 African Lantern shark
The diminutive African Lanternshark is one of the few potentially endangered small shark species.
Regularly caught and used as by-catch in shrimp fisheries, there are concerns that they could become endangered soon. Currently, there is enough data available to assess the population status.
Caught in offshore trawls and on hook-and-line gear, these 9″-long sharks are dried and salted for human consumption and used to make fishmeal.
#10 Lollipop Catshark
The lollipop catshark resembles a gelatinous tadpole more closely than a mighty great white. First discovered in 1892, the lollipop catshark has a large head and slender tail.
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Measuring between 9.4” and 11” long, the lollipop catshark is ovoviviparous and has developed large gills so it can survive at depths of over 3,000ft.
Living on a diet of crabs and other crustaceans, the lollipop catshark reaches sexual maturity once it’s between 7.5” and 9.4” long.
A possible by-catch of trawling commercial fisheries, the lollipop catshark lives in such deep waters, it’s largely protected from fishing pressures, although more data is needed to understand their population status fully.
Commonly Asked Questions About Small Shark Species
What are the 2 Smallest Sharks in the World?
Officially, the two smallest shark species are the dwarf lanternshark and the spined pygmy shark.
Since the discovery of the American pocket shark, their status has become questionable.
What is the Smallest Shark in the Ocean?
The dwarf lanternshark has been considered the smallest shark in the ocean since its discovery in 1964.
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The American pocket shark may have since taken this title, but since it was only discovered relatively recently, there isn’t enough data to prove it.
What is the Smallest Living Shark in the World Today?
The very smallest shark in the world today is probably the American pocket shark.
Measuring just 5.5” long, this small shark species is just over an inch smaller than the dwarf lantern shark. Whether it’s the smallest shark in the world today is questionable.
Researchers may well have discovered several even smaller shark species in the time it’s taken me to write this article.
What is the Cutest Shark?
With its bulbous head and cheerful grin, the American pocket shark is the cutest shark species, in my opinion.
I feel the rounded nose gives it a friendlier appearance than the pointed snouts of most small shark species.
There are currently three species of shark sharing the title of the world’s smallest, but none are quite as small as the American pocket shark.
The dwarf lantern shark, spined pygmy shark, and pygmy ribbontail catshark all measure approximately 6.85” long. The only known American pocket shark was over an inch shorter, at just 5.5”.
Many of these small shark species are bioluminescent, using this characteristic to protect themselves against predators and attract unsuspecting prey.
These small shark species frequent such deep waters that our understanding of them is extremely limited.
They are nonetheless just as intriguing as the more common species that share the shallower waters with humans.
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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.