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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?

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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