A deep-sea drama is unfolding in the world of shark science. An exciting scientific report of a rare species in a new place could really just be a photo of a plastic toy.
Through published commentary, tweets and in conversations with Gizmodo, biologists, shark enthusiasts and other experts have expressed extreme skepticism that an alleged photo of a goblin shark really shows a once-living animal.
If authentic, the image in question would be the very first record of the species in the Mediterranean – a remarkable and significant expansion of the unusual animal’s range. But if it’s actually a photo of a toy goblin shark, as multiple sources suggest, it’s a cautionary tale about citizen science, negligent editing and peer review, and the pressure scientists face to publish new findings as quickly and often as possible.
To unravel this shark controversy, let’s start at the beginning.
The published record
Last year, scientists published a paper in which they documented a supposed juvenile goblin shark specimen found dead and washed up on a beach in Greece. It was the first time one of the nightmarish looking deep sea sharks was once sighted in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the paper published in the journal Mediterranean Marine Science in May 2022. In that paper, the researchers said they got the photo from a citizen scientist; none of the team had personally seen or examined the specimen.
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Goblin sharks are elusive creatures, rarely seen dead or live. Not much is known about their reproduction or habits, largely because they spend most of their lives thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean. They are thought to be widespread, and legitimate specimens have been found in various parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Yet, until this study, no one had ever published evidence of a goblin shark in the Mediterranean.
Months after that first publication, in November 2022, a group of ichthyologists and independent researchers responded with a reaction to the first article, in the same scientific journal, questioning the legitimacy of the specimen. “A close examination of this image … raises doubts about its authenticity,” they wrote. The commenters cited 10 reasons for their skepticism, from the shape of the jaw and other parts of the “specimen” in the photo to the incorrect number of gills, stiffness of the fins and lack of detail in the item description.
In response, the original authors of the study published their own follow-up comments in January – doubling down on the authenticity of the copy and attempting to refute each of the concerns. Both comments were first published online this Monday.
A refutation of a refutation
But with the refutation, inconsistencies and more holes emerged, and goblin shark observers remain unconvinced. “In my opinion, it’s a model of such a shark,” Jürgen Pollerspöck, an independent shark researcher and lead author of the November 2022 comment, said in an email to Gizmodo. When he first saw the photo, he said he “immediately noticed the ‘unnatural look’ of the shark. Stranded animals often show injuries or signs of decomposition.” But not the one photographed.
He also pointed out that the original article described a supposedly juvenile goblin shark, estimated to be 3 feet in length. In their response, the authors said that the citizen scientist actually estimated the total length of the specimen at 17 to 20 centimeters, and that it could possibly be a shark embryo, not a juvenile. According to Pollerspöck, 8 inches is too small to be a viable goblin shark, immature, embryonic or otherwise.
Gizmodo contacted the lead researcher who initially published the alleged goblin shark record, as well as the magazine’s editor-in-chief. Neither responded at the time of publication.
The internet weighs in
Meanwhile, the “is it a real shark” discussion had shifted online. David Shiffman, a shark ecologist and marine biologist, weighed in on Twitter in at least two different threads. In a tweetwrote Shiffman an eBay link to a toy goblin shark that seems to fit the photo particularly well.
Deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler also agreed on Twitter to say that he was convinced of the particular eBay toy. “The mystery is coming to an end. It’s a toy shark,” he wrote. In an email to Gizmodo, he clarified, “This is outside my area of expertise… My only comment is that it looks an awful lot like a toy shark.”
Multiple shark enthusiasts responded to Thaler and Shiffman’s tweets, confirming their observations that the “shark” photographed looks very much like the toy shark.
But a marine researcher went further. Matthew McDavitt, a lawyer by profession but a published independent shark researcher in his spare time, compiled his own image comparisons and reported on the controversy, which he shared with Gizmodo.
The original photo “just looked it,” McDavitt told Gizmodo in a phone call. He invoked the drooping rostrum, tail and mouth as things that didn’t make sense with his knowledge of real goblin sharks. He also reiterated Pollerspöck’s concerns about size. “It just didn’t look right.”
McDavitt said this wouldn’t be the first time a fake photo has been published as evidence of an expansion in fish stocks (yes, sharks are fish). The researcher told a story in which he previously noted some inconsistencies in a photo of a rare wedgefish published as the first evidence of a species living off the coast of Portugal. In the end, he said, the photo turned out to be from an aquarium. A photographer had fraudulently passed it off as a dive photo.
Situations like this, he said, can have really negative consequences for researchers. McDavitt noted that in the wedgefish example, he eventually heard from some scientists who were willing to fund an expedition to survey the waters off Portugal to find more examples of the rare fish. Clearly they would have been disappointed.
A marine biologist who requested anonymity for fear of professional harm told Gizmodo in a phone call that he’s pretty sure the goblin shark photo is a fake. When he first looked at the image, he felt it wasn’t right, he said. The scientist explained that this is not how most species records are presented – with a single photo without even a scale bar.
Although he does not personally know the publishing scientists, he does not believe they had malicious intent. According to him, they have not exercised due diligence. Whether the citizen scientist who sent them the photo knew it wasn’t a real goblin shark or not isn’t clear, he said.
Both the marine biologist and McDavitt said a key problem here is the negligence on the part of the publishing journal and the general pressure within academia to publish new and exciting findings. The most responsible and best outcome would be for the original researchers to retract their article or for the journal to issue a retraction, both said.
Pollerspöck echoed the sentiment. The principal investigator of the goblin shark study is a student, he stressed. “In my opinion, the problem and the responsibility lies more with the editor of the magazine and the reviewers,” he wrote to Gizmodo. He is “convinced it was an accident”, on the part of the original authors.
It’s fantastic. Is it plastic?
Marine scientists and shark enthusiasts aren’t the only ones who have told Gizmodo that the “goblin shark” specimen looks suspicious. Two plastics experts expressed concern about the veracity of the alleged fish.
“I think it’s very possible that it could be [a] degraded plastic toys, Joana Sip, a plastic degradation researcher at Duke University, told Gizmodo in a phone call. Sipe said she couldn’t possibly be sure because the only way to determine the material would be to inspect it directly, but that many aspects of the photo suggest the “shark” could be molded synthetic material.
She agreed that the line next to the mouth could easily be a seam of machine-formed plastic. Then there are the flecks of what could be sand, or instead remnants of plastic dye sticking to the model. Sipe also pointed out the “L”-shaped dark print on the story, which she said looked like deliberate color shading.
Further, the drooping tail and rostrum (i.e., shark snout) and faded colors could be a result of heat or wear and tear on plastic toys, especially in the sun on a Greek beach, Sipe added.
Greg Merrill, a graduate student at Duke University who studies plastic pollution in marine mammals, also believed the “animal” photographed was a plastic model. “I’m not a shark expert; I study whales and plastic,” he wrote in an email to Gizmodo. Nevertheless, “I’m sure these are toys,” he said.
His criticism echoed those of other researchers; he also pointed out the lack of a photo scale and the lax description in the original publication. He noted that it is incredibly rare to find a fully intact specimen of a marine organism washed up on a beach. “scavengers — crabs, gulls, etc. — love a free meal and will often consume soft tissues, such as the eyes, almost immediately,” Merrill wrote. “This is if the animal ever comes ashore.”