Museums evoke a sense of wonder to those young and old – small little faces and hands pressed up against glass cases that hold creatures we rarely see or have been extinct for a long time. But what if I told you that those were just a fraction of the animals in the building? Behind those “STAFF ONLY” doors lies a maze of hallways that eventually lead one to the archives. There, in either glass bottles or drawers or hooks, are thousands of animals seldom seen by the public.
One would think that if a critter was in a museum, surely it was properly identified and scientists would know a lot about it. But museum archives are one of the best places to find new species because taxonomy is ever changing! Such is the case for a new species of elasmobranch (the animals we know as sharks, skates, and rays).
The animal orders Pristiformes, Rhiniformes, and Rhinobatiformes (also known as sawfishes, wedgefishes, and guitarfishes) were recently revisited in 2016 and were combined in the newly described order Rhinopristiformes based on molecular and morphological data, including the families Pristidae and Rhinidae and two new families: the Glaucostegidae and Trygonorrhinidae. Prior to 2016, Rhinobatidae consisted of six genera and 48 species, with one genera and several species having been considered “highly questionable” by scientists. Since the revision, Rhinobatidae now has three genera (Acroteriobatus, Pseudobatos, and Rhinobatos).
Those in the Acroteriobatus genus are mostly found in the shallow waters of western Indian Ocean, with most species reaching maximum sizes of about 2 feet – 4.6 feet long (0.6 – 1.4 meters) in total length (TL), with a maximum size of 6.7 ft (2 m). A closer look at specimens scientifically known as Acroteriobatus leucospilus in this genus found that it was actually multiple different animals!
The discovery was astounding, even to world renowned shark scientist Dr. David Ebert who is known as “Lost Sharks Guy” and has described many new elasmobranch species. “I still get the thrill of discovery every time!” Dr. Ebert says, who is over the moon at having named four new sharks in the past five weeks. “I still get excited to see each through to fruition in its name becoming official!”
Not only was Acroteriobatus leucospilus redescribed but two new species were discovered in the process; both new critters are endemic, one to Madagascar and the other to Socotra Islands. “This group of rays are among the most critically endangered group of elasmobranchs [and] since both are endemic the conservation International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List Status is likely to be elevated, especially since they may be subject to intense fishing pressure,” explained Ebert.
More than 1,200 different species of sharks and rays inhabit our global ocean and many are unfortunately being pushed towards extinction. In 2014, the IUCN reported that 25% of all shark and ray species were threatened, with 25 species critically endangered. Those numbers were revised in early 2021, with 36% now under threat and the number of critically endangered species tripling (from 25 to 76). Eight out of nine species that were “uplisted” to the Critically Endangered category –one step away from extinction – are rays.
“The alarm-bells for sharks and rays could not be ringing louder,” said Dr. Andy Cornish, Leader of Sharks: Restoring the Balance, WWF’s global shark and ray conservation programme. “The sheer number and diversity of these animals facing extinction is staggering. Overfishing is by far the greatest threat and has to be reined in. The good news is that solutions to this crisis do exist. Governments and the regional fisheries management organisations, which manage fishing in the high seas, must act now and boldly to recover the most threatened species before it is too late.”
“These ‘lost sharks’ are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine and are better indicators of what is happening in the environment than the larger, more charismatic species! Most of these species maybe slipping away while people focus on the more charismatic species,” explained Ebert. “Outside myself and a couple others no one is really looking for such species. I feel at times I am in a race to find these Lost Sharks before they are gone for good!”
Ebert’s colleagues and students are fervently searching the globe for lost sharks, such as one of his students who just helped describe a new demon catshark. Dr. Ebert and his team also re-discovered a butterfly ray that scientists had previously thought was extinct due to it not being seen in ages. “This is the kind of thing I get excited about as well, finding a species we have not seen in decades and may possibly be extinct,” he exclaimed.
If one message can be taken away from entertainment shows like Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” and National Geographic’s “Shark Fest,” it should be that sharks and rays are indispensable to our oceans (and the millions of people who rely on this ecosystem for food and their livelihoods). With researchers like Dr. Ebert and his team, one can only hope we discover all ‘Lost Sharks’ before they truly do become lost.