- Status: Critically endangered
- Known as: Angel Shark, Angelshark
- Estimated numbers left in the wild: Likely several thousand, but extinct over most of its former range and reduced to a rare remnant even where it survives.
Fascinatingly similar to many rays and stingrays, the angel shark is an actual shark adapted to lurking on the bottom in soft sand or mud. Male angel sharks measure 1.8 meters, while females are larger at 2.4 meters.
These sharks can reach a weight of 80 kilograms, though most individuals are smaller.
The angel shark’s body is flat and wide, with large fins extending out on either side and large eyes positioned atop the head rather than on its sides, giving a wide field of view.
The belly is white, while the upper surface varies considerably, from grey to dull brick red to greenish-brown, almost always with many small white speckles for camouflage in the sand.
The angel shark is an ambush predator, burying itself in sand or mud and leaving nothing but its eyes above the surface, much like a huge stingray. When its quarry swims past within range, the angel shark bursts from its cover to kill and devour the startled sea creature.
Typical prey includes skates and flatfishes swimming by squid and cuttlefish, the occasional sea bird, or crabs skittering over the surface of the sand or mud.
The angel shark’s teeth are small but sharp, adapted to smaller types of prey. Though their bite is painful, it is nowhere near damaging to a human as larger sharks and is used only in self-defense. The angel shark swims freely at night – it only lurks in an ambush during the daylight hours.
Like many sharks, angel sharks give birth to live young, which is accomplished by an adaptation allowing the eggs to hatch inside the mother rather than after being laid.
The pups are born 20 to 30 centimeters long and may number up to two dozen if their mother is a large female. Gestation is approximately 10 months, though this, and other details of the shark’s life cycle, are still unclear due to its extreme rarity and the difficulty of proper scientific study.
See Related: Great White Shark
The angel shark’s range is much diminished from its previous extent, and the species is now confined to the north-eastern Atlantic Ocean rather than extending down to the Mediterranean Sea as it once did.
The angel shark lives on the continental shelf with soft sand and mud on the bottom and is seldom found at depths greater than 150 meters. Angel Sharks also sometimes enter brackish estuarine environments.
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Angel sharks have been decimated by the use of trawling nets, which are dragged over the bottom of the ocean and thus scoop up these ambush predators as by-catch.
This factor alone is enough to threaten the species with extinction and is likely responsible for wiping it out in the Mediterranean and much of the North Sea.
Some fishing occurs for food or for the oil that can be extracted from the shark, but this occurs at a low level and would not be a hazard to the angel shark’s survival without the main threat of the by-catch problem.
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Conservation efforts for the angel shark are more like well-meaning but futile gestures than practical, useful plans. For example, it is fully protected in the Balearic Islands, which have been extinct for decades. Other protection plans are similarly absurd.
The only potentially useful action regarding this shark species is a captive breeding program at Deep Sea World in Britain – it is small thus far but successful and may someday help with reintroduction.
See Related: Dusky Shark
Do you know of or are you a part of an organization that works to conserve the Angel Shark? Then please contact us to have it featured on Our Endangered World.