Giant smalltooth sand tiger sharks

5.2 meter Odontaspis

The largest smalltooth sand tiger ever caught, a 5.2 meter female from the South Atlantic, from Kukuev & Batal’yants (2019).

I’ve discussed the dubious modern survival of megalodon at length on this blog. This time I want to highlight another “cryptid” shark that is more obscure but actually plausible. Nicknamed the “Malpelo monster”, it has only been included briefly in a few cryptozoology books (e.g. Eberhart, 2002; Coudray, 2009/2016). This supposedly unknown species was first reported by oceanographer François Sarano in an online article in 2001. Individuals were sighted in waters below 50 m (164 ft) around Malpelo Island, which is 500 km (310 mi) off the coast of Colombia in the Pacific Ocean. The Malpelo monster most closely resembled the smalltooth sand tiger shark Odontaspis ferox1, but Sarano considered it to possibly be a new species. He distinguished it from O. ferox by its larger eyes and the giant size of some females, which were alleged to reach 6 m (19.7 ft) in length2 (Sarano, 2001).

However, marine biologists have concluded that the Malpelo monster is O. ferox and not a distinct species, confirmed by both observed morphology and DNA analysis (Venail, 2002; Bessudo et al. 2010). After looking at high quality photographs and footage3 of the Malpelo sand tigers, I completely agree with this assessment. Sarano’s claim that they have larger eyes than typical O. ferox is not accurate, which may have been due to an unfamiliarity with its appearance. This leaves the intriguing claim of 6 m length that unfortunately has not been addressed by the scientific studies. At the time of Sarano’s article, the maximum length for O. ferox was thought to only be around 4 m (13.1 ft). Since then, larger sand tigers have been documented that make 6 m seem more reasonable.

Until recently, the record-holding smalltooth sand tiger was a 4.5 m (14.8 ft) female caught off the coast of New South Wales, Australia in 1986 (Fergusson et al. 2008). However, this record was surpassed by one captured by a Russian trawler in 1985, but not published until last year. It was a 5.2 m (17.1 ft) female dredged up from 800 m (2,624 ft) over the southern end of Walvis Ridge in the mid-South Atlantic. Not only is its size notable, but it is also the first occurrence of O. ferox in the open waters of the Atlantic (Kukuev & Batal’yants, 2019). This increase of 0.7 m in the maximum length of O. ferox is surprising, and it puts an additional increase of 0.8 m to 6 m within the realm of possibility. The fact that the largest sand tigers have been females4 lends further credibility to Sarano’s account. While the giant size of the Malpelo sand tigers is anecdotal, it cannot be discounted based on current information.

Odontaspis size chart

Size chart comparing the largest smalltooth sand tiger individuals, both captured and sighted. The sand tiger silhouette is redrawn from Ebert (2014).

Notes

1“Sand tiger” in this post only refers to the smalltooth sand tiger Odontaspis ferox, not to be confused with the sand tiger Carcharias taurus.                                                                                                                                                                                                                     2All the lengths in this post are total length, measured from the snout to the upper caudal lobe in natural position.
3The 2002 French documentary Sandra et le requin inconnu has several video clips of the Malpelo sand tigers. Excellent closeup photos are also available in this 2013 article by Andy Murch.                                                                                                                4O. ferox is sexually dimorphic, with adult females being significantly larger on average than males (Fergusson et al. 2008).

References

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