March 2, 2006
Biologist Discovers New Shark Species
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A Mexican marine biologist has discovered a new shark species in the murky depths of Mexico's Sea of Cortez, the first new shark find in the wildlife-rich inlet in 34 years.
Postgraduate student Juan Carlos Perez was on a fishing boat in early 2003 studying sharks from the Mustelus family netted at depths of 660 feet when he noticed some of them had darker skin and white markings.The sharks, slender, dark gray-brown and around 5 feet (1.5 meters) long, turned out to be a new species that Perez and his team have named "Mustelus hacat," after the word for shark in a local Indian dialect.
"What I first noticed was their color. They are dark in color, like dark coffee, and have white markings on the tips and edges of their fins and tails which jump out at you because they are so dark," Perez told Reuters on Thursday.
"I got back from the boat and the first thing I said was that I thought I had a new species, but I wasn't sure until six months on when we did genetic tests," he said, audibly elated.
Perez studied around 40 of the sharks from 2003 to 2005.
Worldwide, marine biologists tend to discover two or three new shark species in any given year.
But Perez's find -- bringing to five the types of Mustelus shark found in the eastern North Pacific -- is the first shark discovery in the Sea of Cortez since the tiny Mexican Horn Shark (Heterodontus mexicanus) was identified in 1972.
"I wasn't looking for something new, but it's very satisfying. I'm very happy," said Perez, 31, who is based at the CICESE science and technology research center at the port of Ensenada in northwestern Baja California state.
His find was published in the U.S. journal Copeia in December.
"There must be more undiscovered species there but access is difficult. If we hadn't been on those boats I'd never have seen them because that's the only place they are caught. And it's not a region that attracts scuba diving."
There are some 50 to 60 species of shark in the Sea of Cortez, a narrow body of water also known as the Gulf of California that separates Mexico's Baja California peninsula from the mainland and is famous for its rich and unique ecosystem.
The Mustelus hacat lives in the ocean's depths feeding on shellfish and shrimp," Perez said, adding: "They have very, very small teeth. They are really not aggressive or dangerous."