The impressive and unique angel shark has long been revered for its elegant form and remarkable size. But despite its prehistoric appearance, it’s quite fragile. And sadly, it’s now on the brink of extinction.
So, how many angel sharks are left in the world today? How did this species go from being relatively common to critically endangered in just a few decades?
Let’s dive into the troubling but fascinating marine world of angel sharks.
Basic Angel Shark Facts
To better understand what may have led to the decline of angel sharks, it’s essential to know a bit more about their biology and habits. This will provide valuable insight into the challenges they now face in the wild.
Appearance and Anatomy
Angel sharks (Squatina squatina) are easily recognizable by their flat bodies and long, wing-like pectoral fins. This gives them a somewhat stingray-like appearance, along with their long, whip-like tails. Their skin is gray or brown and is normally covered in small dark spots to help them blend in with the ocean floor.
They can grow quite large, with some specimen reaching up to 12 feet in length and weighing over 500 pounds. But these extremes are rare, as most of them only grow to be about half that size.
The angel shark habitat normally consists of temperate and tropical parts of the ocean near coral reefs, since they prefer to stay in shallow waters. However, they have also been known to venture into deeper waters on occasion.
They’re primarily located in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Canary Islands, with some populations in the Mediterranean Sea and off the coast of Africa. This distribution has likely contributed to their decline, as they are now more vulnerable to overfishing and habitat loss.
Diet and Nutrition
As nocturnal carnivorous predators, angel sharks primarily feed on smaller fish, squid, and crustaceans. They use their sense of smell to track down their prey, which they then capture by lying in wait on the ocean floor and ambushing their unsuspecting victims.
Interestingly enough, these sharks have also been known to eat seagrass and other plant matter now and then. Although it’s unclear why they do this, it’s thought that it may help them remove parasites from their digestive system and boost their typically slow metabolisms.
As a monogamous species, angel sharks have only one mate throughout their lifetime. The mating ritual is quite interesting, as the male will use his teeth to grab onto the female’s pectoral fins and hold her still during copulation. The dance-like movements help the male shark stimulate affection from his partner and ensure a successful pairing.
The eggs hatch inside the mother, and then the viviparous female gives birth to litters of anywhere from two to ten pups. These baby sharks are born fully developed and can fend for themselves almost immediately.
Role in the Ecosystem
The ocean ecosystem maintains a delicate balance, with each species playing an essential role in keeping things running smoothly. Unfortunately, the decline in the angel shark population has thrown this balance off, with potentially devastating consequences.
As top predators, these sharks help keep populations of smaller fish in check. This, in turn, helps maintain the overall health of coral reefs and other sensitive habitats. Without them, these ecosystems could quickly fall apart.
When they act as prey, angel sharks also provide an important food source for larger predators like dolphins, seals, and other types of sharks. The loss of this food source could have a ripple effect on the food chain, resulting in a significant decline in ocean biodiversity.
How Many Angel Sharks Are Left in the World
According to the latest data, there are 23 species of angel sharks that are currently facing extinction. The numbers are decreasing at an alarming rate, with some populations declining by as much as 98% in just the last few decades.
Some experts claim that these stats would put the global angel shark population at somewhere around 200,000 individuals. But this is likely a very optimistic estimate, as many others believe that the real number could be significantly lower.
Why Are Angel Sharks Endangered
The steep decline in numbers can be attributed to a variety of threats, both natural and man-made. Either way, the future looks bleak for this species unless something is done to turn things around.
The primary threat to angel sharks is humans, who have been hunting them for centuries. Their meat is considered a delicacy in some cultures, while their liver oil is used as an ingredient in traditional medicines. In addition, their skin is often used to make leather goods, and their fins are sometimes sold as a soup ingredient.
As if that wasn’t enough, the angel shark is endangered because it’s frequently caught as bycatch by fishermen who are targeting other kinds of fish. Its slow swimming speeds and bottom-dwelling habits make them particularly vulnerable to being snagged in fishing nets and lines.
In addition to being hunted by humans, angel sharks are also under threat from habitat loss and degradation. As coastal development continues to intrude on their natural environment, they’re being forced into increasingly smaller areas. This not only makes it harder for them to find food and mates but also puts them at a greater risk of being caught by fishermen.
Finally, climate change is also having an impact on these sharks. As the oceans warm and become more acidic, it’s thought that angel sharks will be less able to survive and reproduce. This could eventually lead to their extinction.
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.
One such effort is the Angel Shark Project, launched in 2013. The project focuses on education and awareness-raising, as well as conducting research into their biology and ecology.
But engaging the general public is only part of the battle. To really make a difference, tougher laws and regulations need to be put in place to protect angel sharks from being hunted and killed. This includes closed areas, catch limits, and gear restrictions to prevent habitat loss and degradation.
As grim and hopeless as the circumstances may be with regard to how many angel sharks are left in the world, it’s important to remember that all is not lost. There are still people fighting for their survival, and with enough public support, we may be able to turn the tide and save them from extinction.