11 Fascinating Facts About the Frilled Shark

Sometimes called a “living fossil” because it has changed so little since prehistoric times, the eel-like frilled shark—which is rarely seen by humans—has been in the news this week after a snake-like one was found off the coast of Portugal. Here’s a quick primer.

1. IT’S NAMED FOR ITS GILLS.

Its scientific name is Chlamydoselachus anguineus, but this creature’s common name comes from its gills: Unlike all other sharks, which have separate gills, C. anguineus’ first pair of gills go all the way across its throat; each pair is lined at the edges with red “fringe.”

2. IT WAS DISCOVERED IN THE 19TH CENTURY.

The sharks were first scientifically described by German ichthyologist Ludwig H.P. Döderlein, who taught at Tokyo University from 1879 to 1881 and brought two specimens captured in Tokyo Bay when he returned to Vienna. His paper describing the sharks was lost, however, so the first description comes from Samuel Garman in the 1884 edition of the Bulletin of Essex Institute. In the remarks after the description, Garman noted that

Such an animal as that described is very likely to unsettle disbelief in what is popularly called the “sea serpent.” Though it could hardly on examination be taken for anything but a shark, its appearance in the forward portion of the body, particularly in the head, brings vividly to mind the triangular heads, deep-cleft mouths, and fierce looks of many of our most dreaded snakes. In view of the possible discoveries of the future, the fact of the existence of such creatures, so recently undiscovered, certainly calls for a suspension of judgment in regard to the non-existence of that oft-appearing but elusive creature, the serpent-like monster of the oceans.

The frilled shark’s species name, anguineus, is Latin for “consisting of snakes” or “snaky.”

Biologist David A. Ebert, director of the Pacific Shark Research Center, described a second frilled shark species—Chlamydoselachus africana, which lives off the coast of Africa and is about half as long as its predecessor—in 2009.

3. IT’S GOT INSANE TEETH.

The frilled shark’s mouth is just as terrifying as the maw of a great white: It’s lined with 25 rows of backward-facing, trident-shaped teeth—300 in all. “The teeth are constructed for grasping and from their peculiar shape and sharpness it would seem as if nothing that once came within their reach could escape them,” Garman wrote. “Even in the dead specimen the formidable three-pronged teeth make the mouth a troublesome one to explore.” 

Ebert can testify to that fact. “I can tell you from snagging my fingers on the teeth, you can only back out one way and that’s in toward the mouth and then out,” he told WIRED. “It didn’t feel good, I can tell you that.” The shark uses the bright white teeth, which sharply contrast against its brown body, to lure in prey: “By the time [the prey] realize, Oh, that’s the teeth of a shark, they’re too close and the shark is able to ambush them at that point,” Ebert said. “It’s almost like when you drive out of a parking lot exit and they have the spikes sticking out that say, ‘Do not back up.’ That’s kind of what happens when these things catch prey items.”

And as if its teeth weren’t freaky enough, the frilled shark has spines, called dermal denticles, lining its mouth. So if you happen to see one of these anywhere, it’s better to look and not touch.

4. IT “HOVERS” IN THE WATER...

Scientists once believed that the frilled shark wriggled through the water like an eel. But according to the ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research, “its body cavity is elongate and packed with a huge liver perfused with low-density oils and hydrocarbons, making the shark almost neutrally buoyant at depth.”

5. … AND IT MAY STRIKE AT ITS PREY LIKE A SNAKE.

No one has ever observed the frilled shark hunting, but scientists believe that it uses its posterior fins as propulsive surfaces to launch itself at its prey. Its long jaws, which terminate at the back of its head, may allow the animal to gape extra wide and take in prey half as long as its body. Analysis of the stomach contents of captured specimens has revealed that the frilled shark’s diet is 61 percent cephalopod, 11 percent teleost fishes, and, occasionally, other sharks.

6. IT’S FOUND ALL OVER THE WORLD—BUT YOU PROBABLY WON’T SEE IT.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that the frilled shark is “wide-ranging but spottily distributed”; you can see where the shark is found on the map above. It typically resides in depths between 390 and 4200 feet, so people rarely see these sharks unless they venture to the surface, which isn’t unheard of (as you’ll see below).

7. FEMALES ARE BIGGER THAN MALES.

On average, males range from 3.2 to 3.6 feet and females from 4.4 to 4.9 feet; the maximum these sharks can reach is 6.4 feet.

8. THEIR GESTATION PERIOD MAY BE 3.5 YEARS LONG.

A study of frilled sharks in Japan revealed that the animals breed year-round; litters typically consist of six pups, which emerge from eggs while still in the mother’s uterus and are then born live. Scientists think the shark may have the longest gestation period ever: Frilled sharks could gestate for as long as 42 months, nearly twice as long as African elephants carry their young. Scientists theorize that the extreme length has something to do with the shark’s cold deep sea habitat.

9. IT WASN’T SEEN IN ITS NATURAL HABITAT UNTIL 2004.

NOAA scientists exploring the “Latitude 31-30 Transect” in the Atlantic Ocean captured a video of a frilled shark “swimming over sea bottom that was covered with tiny sand dunes” during a submersible dive. “This species has been, on rare occasion, caught or taken in bottom trawls,” the site notes. “To the knowledge of everyone on board, however, this was the first time anyone had ever seen the rare species in its natural habitat.”

10. ONE WAS CAPTURED IN JAPAN IN 2007.

In January 2007, a Japanese fisherman spotted a strange, eel-like creature with a mouth full of sharp teeth near the surface; he alerted the staff of the Awashima Marine Park in Shizuoka, who captured the animal and transferred it to a seawater pool, where they filmed it. “We think it may have come close to the surface because it was sick, or else it was weakened because it was in shallow waters,” a park official said. “We believe moving pictures of a live specimen are extremely rare. They live between 600 and 1000 meters under the water, which is deeper than humans can go.” The shark, a female, died a few hours after its capture.

11. IT CALLS ANOTHER FREAKY SHARK ITS COUSIN.

The frilled shark might have rows upon rows of gnarly teeth, but its cousin, the goblin shark, can thrust its jaw out of its face. Which is more terrifying?

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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iStock

To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

8 Hair-Raising Facts About Black Cats

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iStock

No member of catkind is more maligned than the black cat. At best, they're bemoaned as lackluster photography subjects; at worst, they're seen as harbingers of really bad luck. But there's a lot to love about these furballs, as evidenced by the holidays in their honor—the ASPCA celebrates Black Cat Appreciation Day annually on August 17 and, across the pond, October 27 is National Black Cat Day—and the facts below.

1. IN SOME CULTURES, BLACK CATS ARE GOOD LUCK.

A black kitten stretching
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They may have a less-than-stellar reputation in some areas of the world, but there are plenty of places where black cats aren’t bad luck at all. If you’re a single woman in Japan, owning a black cat is said to increase your number of suitors; if you’re in Germany and one crosses your path from right to left, good things are on the horizon.

2. THEY'RE A SAILOR'S BEST FRIEND.

Not only were cats welcome aboard British vessels to hunt mice, but sailors generally thought a black cat in particular would bring good luck and ensure a safe return home. A few of these kitties have been enshrined in maritime history, like Tiddles, who traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time with the Royal Navy. (His favorite pastime was playing with the capstan’s bell-rope.)

3. THERE IS NO ONE BLACK CAT BREED.

The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 22 different breeds that can have solid black coats—including the Norwegian Forest Cat, Japanese Bobtail, and Scottish Fold—but the Bombay breed is what most people picture: a copper-eyed, all-black shorthair. The resemblance to a "black panther" (more on those animals in a bit) is no coincidence. In the 1950s, a woman named Nikki Horner was so enamored with how panthers looked that she bred what we now refer to as the Bombay.

4. BLACK CATS ARE AS EASILY ADOPTED AS CATS OF OTHER COLORS.

Black cat facts.
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It’s common to think that black cats in shelters are the last in line to find their forever homes, but a recent survey from the ASPCA suggests otherwise. Although euthanasia numbers for black cats were some of the highest, their total number of adoptions was the highest of any hue as well. The vet who conducted the study argues that there may just simply be more black cats than other colors.

5. THEIR COATS CAN "RUST."

A black cat’s color all boils down to a genetic quirk. There are three variants of the black fur gene (solid black, brown, and cinnamon), and the hue works in conjunction with the pattern. If a cat has a solid black hue, but also the dominant tabby stripe gene, heavy exposure to the sun can make the eumelanin pigment in its fur break down to reveal its once-invisible stripes (another potential cause: nutritional deficiency). What was once a black cat is now a rusty brown cat.

6. THE GENE THAT CAUSES BLACK FUR MIGHT MAKE THESE FELINES RESISTANT TO DISEASE.

Even though their coloring is what gives them a bad reputation, these felines may be getting the last laugh after all. The mutation that causes a cat’s fur to be black is in the same genetic family as genes known to give humans resistance to diseases like HIV. Some scientists think the color of these cats may have less to do with camouflage and more to do with disease resistance. They’re hoping that as more cat genomes are mapped, we may get a step closer to curing HIV.

7. YOU CAN VISIT A CAT CAFE DEVOTED TO BLACK CATS.

Step through the doors of Nekobiyaka in Himeji, Japan and get ready for your wildest cat lady dreams to come true. Black cats are the stars of this café and visitors are invited to pet (but not pick up) these lithe felines. Each of Nekobiyaka’s identical-looking black cats wears a different colored bandana to resolve any catastrophic mix-ups.

8. THEY'RE DIFFICULT TO PHOTOGRAPH—BUT IT CAN BE DONE.

A black cat is photographed against a blue-gray background
iStock

The modern-day conundrum black cat owners face isn’t bad luck, but bad lighting. In a world filled with people sharing photos of their pets on Instagram, black cats can end up looking like a dark blob in photos. One photographer’s advice? Minimalist backgrounds, so your subject can stand out, and angling them towards natural light sources (but keep them out of bright sunlight!). If you're snapping pics on your iPhone, tap on your cat's face, then use the sun icon to brighten up the photo.

BONUS: BLACK PANTHERS HAVE SPOTS.

Technically, there is no such thing as a black panther—it’s a term used for any big black cat. What we call black panthers are in fact jaguars or leopards and yes, they have spots, too. Their hair shafts produce too much melanin thanks to a mutation in their agouti genes, which are responsible for distributing pigment in an animal’s fur. Look carefully and you can see a panther’s spots as the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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