A young great white shark was found dead on a North Carolina beach earlier this week, and despite an extensive examination conducted at UNCW, the animal’s cause of death remains something of a mystery.
The shark was discovered Monday morning, near Crystal Pier at the Oceanic Restaurant on North Carolina’s Wrightsville Beach, as WECT notes. A female, the great white was roughly 10-feet-long, weighing in at 687 pounds. UNCW’s Marine Mammal Stranding program moved the deceased shark, which had already expired at the time it was found, from the beach.
On Tuesday, a necropsy was performed on the shark at UNCW, drawing a large crowd of students according to FOX 19. The five-hour-long procedure began with a team cleaning the shark, photographing it, and examining the animal for signs of injury or parasites. The great white’s corpse showed evidence of multiple shark bites, and its left pectoral fin was missing.
The bites were centered along the shark’s flank and ventrum, and though samples were taken in an effort to determine whether they occurred pre- or postmortem, they don’t represent the animal’s cause of death. According to Thomas Lankford, an associate professor at UNCW’s Biology and Marine Biology Department, the bites were likely inflicted as other sharks attempted to scavenge the great white’s remains.
— OCEARCH (@OCEARCH) December 10, 2015
In addition to those injuries, the shark also had a deep linear laceration centered on its right side. That injury was in the process of healing at the time of the shark’s death, however, and was likely unconnected to its demise.
The internal examination of the deceased white shark began with the removal of the animal’s liver, which represented a staggering 15 percent of its overall body weight. Samples were taken from both the shark’s gut and its muscles in an effort to ascertain its swimming efficiency, as well as to determine the presence of any biotoxins.
Despite the best efforts of researchers, the cause of the shark’s death was not readily apparent. They remain optimistic, however, that test samples taken from the great white during the necropsy will reveal further details surrounding its demise.
— OCEARCH (@OCEARCH) December 9, 2015
The animal’s death represents a unique opportunity for researchers to examine a great white, as the species is federally protected in the United States. The shark’s body parts will be distributed to labs around the country for research and further testing, which may also shed some light on exactly how the animal died.
Great white sharks are hardly an uncommon sight in North Carolina, as Lankford noted, though it is exceedingly uncommon for one to wash ashore. Such an event has precedent, however, as three separate strandings of great white sharks were reported this past summer in Cape Cod. The first of those sharks was successfully rescued by officials and members of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, though the other two animals died. The shark which survived was named Jameson by researchers, and has since been detected multiple times by acoustic receivers installed off the cape.
Great White Shark Breaching. Awesome. pic.twitter.com/NmSPHP9tFn
— Nature Pics (@Nature_PlCTURES) December 6, 2015
While the shark’s death is somewhat unusual, Dr. Ann Pabst reiterated that its demise gave researchers and students a unique chance to examine one of the animals.
“This is a very rare event in our area,” she said. “This is the opportunity to learn a great deal of the biology of this really poorly understood and really threatened marine species.”
Pabst also noted that while UNCW specializes in these kinds of investigations, it is often helpful to distribute research among a larger network of institutions, especially in the case of an animal like the great white shark.