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.