Angel sharks are a unique ray-looking shark group that has recently been declared critically endangered, despite inhabiting the world’s sandy seabeds for a very long time.
So how many angel sharks are left in the world today? How did this species go from being relatively common to find to the brink of extinction?
Let’s dive into the fascinating yet troubling world of angel sharks.
Essential Angel Shark Facts
To better understand the reasons for the decline of angel sharks and the challenges they face today, you first need to understand their biology and habits better.
1. Appearance & Anatomy
Angel sharks are easily recognizable by their flat bodies, long, wing-like pectoral fins, and whip-like tails that lend them their stingray appearance.
Their skin color ranges from gray to brown and purplish and is typically covered in small dark spots to help them blend in with the ocean floor.
Also, angel sharks are considered a small species as they grow up to 7 feet and weigh about 80 pounds. In comparison, the Great White can grow up to two tons and six meters.
While most angel shark species live in shallow waters close to the shore in temperate and tropical parts of the ocean, some can be found in deeper water (down to 1.3 km).
While most species are found near the coasts of Africa and Europe, they are spread across the globe, from South America to Southeast Asia and Australia.
3. Diet & Nutrition
As ambush predators that camouflage in the sand waiting for their prey, angel sharks do not have a varied diet, and they mostly feed on smaller fish, cephalopods, and crustaceans, which they can easily break apart and consume thanks to their dense flattened teeth.
These unique sharks take a more active approach at night as they patrol the bottom of the floor looking for food, which may even include plant matter such as seagrass.
To reproduce, angel sharks rely on an ovoviviparous reproduction mechanism, meaning their young gestates in eggs in their mother’s womb until the time they have to hatch.
The typical angel shark litter size is between 8 to 25 pups, but only 20% reach adulthood since they are quite small and vulnerable when born since they have to rely on fake eyes.
5. Role in the Ecosystem
The declining angel shark population has an effect on the entire marine ecosystem since they serve as predators that keep the populations of smaller fish and marine animals in check. In turn, the overall health of coral reefs and other sensitive habitats improves.
As prey, they are an important food source for larger predators, such as dolphins, seals, and other types of sharks. So if angel shark is ever declared extinct, the entire marine food chain will feel their absence, and the ocean biodiversity may significantly decline.
How Many Angel Sharks Are Left in the World?
According to the latest data, most angel shark species are currently facing extinction and were put on the IUCN Red List. Their numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate, with some populations having declined by as much as 98% in just the last few decades.
By some (very optimistic) estimates, several thousand angel sharks are left in the world’s oceans—a number that is dwindling with each passing day.
Why Are Angel Sharks Endangered?
The steep decline of the oceans’ angel shark populations can be attributed to a variety of threats, both natural and man-made, and we look at the main culprits below.
Humankind has been hunting angel sharks for centuries for their meat, which is a delicacy in some cultures; however, their liver oil is also an ingredient in some medicines, the skin is used to make leather goods, and their fins are sold as a soup ingredient.
Because of their habitats’ location and slow swimming speeds, angel sharks are also frequently snagged in fishing nets as a bycatch by fishermen targeting other types of fish.
To make a bad situation worse, coastal development has continued to intrude on their natural environment, forcing them into smaller and more secluded areas, and making it harder for them to find food, mates, and safe shelter.
Finally, climate change is also impacting the existence of the angel shark species since, in increasingly acidic oceans, angel sharks will be less able to survive and thrive.
Angel Shark Conservation Efforts
Conservation plans to save angel sharks have been dubbed futile and unrealistic by some, but there are still those who remain hopeful. Some efforts are currently underway to try and protect these sharks, but whether or not they’ll be successful remains to be seen.
The Angel Shark Project is one such attempt, and its aim is to secure a better future for endangered angel shark species via education, awareness-raising, and thorough research into their biology, ecology, and migratory patterns.
Ultimately, engaging the general public won’t do much, and strict laws and regulations are needed to protect angel sharks from being hunted and killed. This includes closed areas, catch limits, and gear restrictions to prevent habitat loss and degradation.
While circumstances are rather grim at the moment as most angel sharks are classified as critically endangered, all is not lost. There are still people fighting to conserve these rare species, and with enough public support, they may be able to save them from extinction.