12 Facts About Goblin Sharks

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People who accidentally catch a Mitsukurina owstoni, a.k.a. the goblin shark, don’t tend to forget the experience. With their intricate jaws and ghostly complexions, the fish look like prehistoric monsters—or visitors from another planet. This species certainly isn't the world's fastest shark, nor the biggest, nor the most powerful, but the goblin shark does come with an irresistible aura of mystery. Here are 12 things you probably didn't know about it.

1. IT GETS ITS COMMON NAME FROM A JAPANESE DEMON.

The goblin shark has a huge range that includes much of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans, but it’s most commonly encountered off the coasts of Japan. Japanese fishermen who accidentally caught the sharks couldn’t help but notice their protruding snouts, which reminded them of folk stories about a long-nosed, red-faced demon known as the tengu. So they began calling the species tengu-zame. (Zame means “shark” in Japanese.) This was translated into English as “goblin shark,” with “elfin shark” being an alternative name the creature occasionally goes by.

2. IT PREFERS DEEP WATER.

Adults are normally captured while swimming at depths of 900 to 4300 feet. Juveniles sometimes venture to within 90 feet of the surface, but like their parents, they appear to prefer going deep. The goblin shark has small eyes, and given the depths they frequent, they probably rely on some of their other senses more heavily.

3. IT CAN GET BIG.

Much of the goblin shark's life cycle—including how it mates and gives birth—is a mystery. The largest recorded individual was 12.6 feet long and weighed 463 pounds, but it’s possible that goblin sharks can grow even bigger.

4. NOBODY KNOWS EXACTLY WHAT THE CREATURE’S UNUSUAL SNOUT IS FOR.

The goblin shark’s most distinctive feature is arguably its long, flattened snout, which looks like the blade of a broadsword when viewed from above. Some have proposed that the extra-long snout is used to poke around for food in narrow crevices. Another explanation involves the ampullae of Lorenzini, the sensory system that allows sharks to pick up the electrical signals of prey underwater. Scientists believe that one reason why hammerhead sharks have such odd-looking heads is because the broad, flat noggin design provides extra room for ampullae of Lorenzini pores; maybe the goblin shark’s elongated nose evolved for the same purpose.

5. WHEN HUNTING, IT THRUSTS ITS JAW FORWARD IN WHAT SCIENTISTS CALL "SLINGSHOT FEEDING."

A goblin shark's jaws are attached to elastic ligaments, and when prey comes within striking distance, the jaw protrudes, allowing the shark to catapult its whole mouth forward at a distance equal to 8.6 to 9.4 percent of its total body length. (If a human mouth was capable of moving like that, you could bite into a piece of food dangling 7 inches in front of your nose.) The unique bite style has been dubbed “slingshot feeding” by researchers at Hokkaido University.

6. IT CAN DEPLOY ITS JAWS TWICE AS FAST AS NEW YORK CITY'S PEDESTRIANS WALK...

New York City pedestrians are legendary for their foot speed, but video recordings of goblin sharks show that even fast walkers have nothing on this shark's jaws, which it can deploy at a speed of 10.1 feet per second—roughly twice as fast as a 2006 study determined pedestrians walk in New York City.

7. ... AND OPEN ITS MOUTH REALLY, REALLY WIDE.

Its mouth opens to an incredible 111-degree angle. Between the reach of its jaw and the capacity of its maw, the shark can fully engulf seemingly-out-of-reach prey in the blink of an eye.

8. IT'S NOT A FAST SWIMMER.

Why do goblin sharks have such freaky jaws? The answer probably has something to do with the way they swim. Goblin sharks are flabby, soft-bodied predators with small fins and a flexible tail that isn’t designed for rapid bursts of propulsion—making them slow-moving fish. So maybe the slingshot feeding technique evolved as a way to help the sluggish carnivore catch its prey in low-light conditions.

9. ITS NATURAL DIET INCLUDES CRABS AND SQUID.

In 2003, a Japanese team examined the stomachs of 121 goblin sharks that had been captured in an underwater canyon near Tokyo and found crustaceans, squid, and bony fish. Other specimens have had octopuses, shrimp, and fin rays in their digestive tracts.

10. THE GOBLIN SHARK IS THE ONLY LIVING MEMBER OF ITS FAMILY.

The Mitsukurinidae family likely evolved during the Cretaceous period. Sharks within this group—including the extant goblin shark—had thin, needle-like teeth towards the front of the mouth. Prehistoric varieties included Anomotodon novus, which lived around Europe and North America between 47.8 and 38 million years ago. Other fossil species had a global distribution.

The family Mitsukurinidae is part of an order of sharks known as the Lamniformes, which also contains the basking shark and great white. Lamniformes have five gill slits on either side of their bodies and most species have two dorsal fins.

11. YOU MIGHT BE SURPRISED BY THE GOBLIN SHARK’S COLOR SCHEME.

Fish specialists used to assume that, like many other sharks, goblins were gray. But in 1976, scientists photographed a specimen on the verge of death—and the fish was pink! Goblin sharks have translucent skin that lacks pigment, and thanks to bloodstreams lying just beneath the hide, live goblins generally look whitish-pink or grayish-purple. After death, however, their color appears to change, with the skin looking fully brown or gray post-mortem.

12. A COUPLE OF DIFFERENT MOVIE MONSTERS HAVE BEEN BASED ON THE GOBLIN SHARK.

Knifehead, a kaiju from Pacific Rim (2013), has a long, pointed snout that is a deliberate homage to the goblin shark. And according to Charlie Henley, VFX supervisor on 2017's Alien: Covenant, he and his team looked to the goblin shark for inspiration when designing the movie's white-skinned “neomorph,” which had a set of protruding jaws it used to take out a traveler halfway through the movie.

11 Cute Facts About Crickets

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iStock.com/sirichai_raksue

They’re insects that invade our homes, but they’re beloved around the world. They’re living thermometers with ears on their knees, and they just might save the world. Here are 11 surprising (and often adorable) facts about crickets.

1. Crickets were named for the sounds they make.

The word cricket comes from the Old French word criquet, and refers to the cricket’s song—people once thought that those repeated chirps sounded like “criquet … criquet … criquet.”

Interestingly, the name for the sport of cricket has a totally different origin: it comes from an Old French word for goal post.

2. They don't make sound the way you think they do.

How do crickets chirp? Old-timey illustrators sidestepped this question by drawing them playing tiny violins. There’s a persistent myth that crickets rub their legs together to make sound. In fact, they sing with their wings.

Run your finger down the teeth of a comb and you’ll hear an almost musical rattle. Crickets make sound in a similar way. They rub a scraping organ on one wing against a comb-like organ on the other.

Each cricket species has distinctive noise-making structures that produce unique sounds. Scientists have even managed to recreate the sound of an extinct cricket relative, a fossilized Jurassic bush cricket (katydid), by examining the shape of its wings.

3. Most female crickets don't sing.

That cricket in your house that’s endlessly chirping away? It’s probably a male. Most female crickets lack those sound-making wing structures. There are exceptions: Some female mole crickets (relatives of “true” crickets) sing. And males of some cricket species never make a peep.

So why do male crickets (usually) chirp?

4. Crickets sing out of love—and anger.

It’s all about securing a mate. But crickets don’t just sing a pretty song and wait for the admirers to trickle in. Many of them have a whole repertoire of calls: There’s one for attracting females from afar, another for close-up courtship, and even a triumphal after-mating song. Crickets also sing to intimidate rival males, and some of a male’s more romantic tunes may trigger nearby females to fight each other.

5. You can use cricket songs as a thermometer.

Crickets call more frequently when the weather gets hotter. It’s such a proven phenomenon that you can use it to calculate the temperature. The snowy tree cricket’s gentle calls seem to match the heat especially accurately. The Old Farmer’s Almanac recommends that you count the number of chirps in 14 seconds and add 40 to get the temperature in Fahrenheit.

6. Some crickets have evolved to stay silent.

A particular fly species has invaded the island of Kauai in Hawaii, and it’s the stuff of cricket nightmares: It uses its incredibly sophisticated hearing system to find a singing cricket and drop maggots on it. Those maggots burrow into their victim and devour it from the inside.

Male crickets on Kauai have responded in a remarkable way. They’ve evolved wings more like a female cricket’s, which means they’ve lost the ability to chirp. Those silent, safe crickets compensate for their lack of courtship songs by spending more time on the move [PDF], which improves their chances of running into potential mates.

7. Crickets listen with their legs.

Insects have ears in weird places. Those cricket-eating parasitic flies, for example, have ears just below their head and neck. When a butterfly lands and folds up its wings, it’s exposing its ears. And cricket ears are tiny spots, just a fraction of a millimeter long, on their front legs just below the knees. They’re some of the smallest ears of any animal, but they’re highly sensitive.

8. There's a whole rainbow of crickets.

If you’ve found a cricket in your house or yard, chances are that it’s black or brownish. But that somber insect has some pretty colorful relatives. There’s the red-headed bush cricket, also known as the handsome trig—and it’s, well, pretty handsome for a cricket. The snowy tree cricket is pastel green with wings shaped like tennis rackets. And if you visit the tropics, where there are more cricket species than anywhere else, you might spot this intricately patterned Nisitrus species.

That’s just the so-called “true” crickets, members of the family Gryllidae. People also use the word cricket for many close Gryllidae relatives, and they’re an amazing bunch of insects ...

9. Crickets have rock star relatives.

One group of cricket relatives is the mole crickets. These insects have big claws and live underground. To attract mates, they throw little rock concerts: They dig horn-shaped burrows, turning their homes into amplifiers that make their calls extra loud.

Then there are the bush crickets, or katydids, which come in hot pink and other startling hues. And some katydids look so much like leaves, complete with dried patches, chew marks, and holes, that you’ve probably walked right past them without realizing you’re being watched.

Another group of cricket relatives, New Zealand’s wetas, includes enormous insects that can outweigh a mouse. The name weta comes from a Maori word for “god of ugly things.” Weta Workshop, the company that created props, costumes, and creatures for the Lord of the Rings films, took its name from these otherworldly insects.

9. People love crickets.

Insects often get a bad rap, but people of many cultures adore crickets. Chinese people have long kept these insects as good luck charms—and for cricket-on-cricket battles. Crickets are beloved in Japan, especially for their musical songs. In Brazil, some species are considered to be signs of hope or incoming wealth (though others are thought to be omens of illness and death). Charles Dickens wrote a tale called The Cricket on the Hearth that featured a cricket acting as a household’s guardian angel. And who could forget Disney’s Jiminy Cricket, and Cri-Kee from Mulan? Few other insects have received the cute Disney treatment.

10. Crickets live in our homes.

Many types of crickets will happily live in and around houses. House crickets, which are brownish and probably native to Asia, breed inside homes in many cities around the world. Black-colored field crickets will accidentally wander into buildings. And one cricket relative, the greenhouse camel cricket, has been quietly invading residences in the eastern U.S.

Fortunately, these household crickets are mostly harmless. Their poop may stain the curtains, and in rare cases they’ll nibble clothing—but usually the worst they’ll do is annoy you with their incessant calls.

11. Crickets just might save the world.

Imagine a high-protein food that’s packed with vitamins. It’s more efficient to produce than conventional meats, and it generates way less greenhouse gas. This superfood? Yup, it’s crickets. You can now purchase these insects in a variety of forms that are mercifully free of twitching legs—including flour. If westerners can overcome their squeamishness about eating insects, then crickets just may be the future of food.

This story originally ran in 2016.

Elephants Are Evolving Without Tusks Thanks to Poaching

iStock.com/LeighGregg
iStock.com/LeighGregg

Natural selection can take millions of years to shape a gene pool, but in parts of Africa, the extreme pressures of poaching may have changed elephants in just a few decades. As National Geographic reports, more tuskless elephants have emerged in regions where their ivory has made them a target.

Elephant poaching has long been in a problem Africa, but the crisis reached a fever pitch during Mozambique's 15-year civil war. Between 1977 and 1992, 90 percent of the elephants living in the country's Gorongosa National Park were slaughtered for ivory used to fund the conflict.

The diminished numbers aren't the only thing that looks different about Gorongosa's elephants today. Poachers often kill male elephants first because they have bigger tusks, and once they're eliminated, the hunters will go after females. Typically, about 2 to 4 percent of all female African elephants never develop tusks—but among female elephants that survived Mozambique's civil war, that number is 51 percent. The effects of poaching can also be observed in the next generation. Roughly 32 percent of female elephants born after 1992 are tuskless.

The trend can be seen in other parts of Africa where poaching has ravaged elephant populations. In Ruaha National Park in Tanzania, elephant behavior researcher Josephine Smit has observed that over one fifth of female elephants older than 5 years lack tusks. Tusklessness rates reach about 35 percent in females over 25.

The statistics are even harder to ignore in South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park, where tuskless animals made up 98 percent of all female elephants in the early 2000s. South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, Lupande Game Management Area in Zambia, and Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda each reported higher-than-average rates of tusklessness immediately following the ivory wars of the 1970s and '80s.

Though poaching is on the decline thanks to bans on the ivory trade and other conservation efforts in Africa, its impact can still be felt. In East Africa, the elephant population was nearly halved between 2008 and 2018. The establishment of wildlife preserves, DNA tracing, and GPS tracking are just a few of the ways conservationists are working to crack down on poachers and restore the species.

[h/t National Geographic]

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