C is for Cookiecutter Shark

Shark Week continues! Now for something really scary.

The cookiecutter shark earns its name from its habit of removing round plugs of flesh from its victims. In fact, its original name was “demon whale-biter.” And it’s not just whales that fall prey to this parasite: dolphins, seals, larger sharks, squid, and large fish like tuna have all been found with craters bitten out of their sides. In fact, certain Samoans once believed that the tuna that entered their bay willingly sacrificed pieces of their flesh to their chieftain god when they came near the shore; now we know they were terrorized by the shark equivalent of a lamprey.

They have a particularly insidious trick to lure their large prey to them. Like the lanternsharks, they have bioluminescent photophores on their bellies to blend in with the light of the sky. But they also have dark collars without photophores. To animals below, the dark collars look vaguely like very small fish, while the rest of the shark just looks like the sky. The attraction is enhanced by the fact that cookiecutter sharks often travel in schools, emulating the prey of their prey.

And that mouth! The cookiecutter removes its mouthful of meal by suctioning down on the skin of its victim, digging in with its slender upper teeth. Then those lower, jack-o-lantern jagged lower teeth bite down and vibrate, effectively becoming electric carving knives. These are not sharks that eviscerate or destroy. They recognize that the world is round and made of meat, and have the knife and fork to take one good gulp at a time, a modest portion. There is something scarier, I think, about an animal that doesn’t want to finish you off, but paces itself, keeping you alive to satisfy itself again later. A predator that knows that there’s plenty and enough of you to go around.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

3 responses to “C is for Cookiecutter Shark

  • Barbara Geary

    Their faces are strangely like those of Tiki Gods…

  • Merimee Moffitt

    Shit o Jesus! How can these sharks be so repulsive? where do ou find this plethora of amazing animals? I never wanna swim with the Cookie Cutters!! Thanks for the heads up. ps. Fab jon in St. paul–you guys rock it!

  • Ben Bormann

    Makes me wanna go swimming, like, right now.

    I’m glad you’re keeping up with these while at Nats. I’d have minor withdrawls otherwise.

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