A Greenland shark has died of a brain infection never seen before in a species

An extremely rare Greenland shark that washed up on the UK coast has died of a brain infection that has never before been recorded in the species.

Rosie Woodroffe, a biologist at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) Institute of Zoology, found the shark dead, washed up on Newlyn Beach in Cornwall on March 13. The rare find was made for an autopsy, which is likely the first ever on the species in the UK

Greenland sharks have the longest lifespan of any vertebrate. Scientists believe they can live for at least 250 years, or even up to 500 years. The shark was found to be 100 years old.

The autopsy, carried out by the Cornwall Marine Pathology Team, found evidence of meningitis caused by a type of bacteria called Pasteurella. The brain was discolored and congested, and the fluid around the brain was cloudy, indicating infection, ZSL said in a press release.

Greenland sharks are a mysterious and poorly understood species. They are almost never spotted and live in deep waters around 650 to 1,640 feet below the ocean surface. Sharks only venture into the shallow waters of bays and mouths in winter.

A photo shows the shark taken away for an autopsy
Cornwall Marine Pathology Team

The infection would have caused the female shark to venture out of its usual deep-sea habitat, causing the subsequent stranding, ZSL said.

Strandings at sea are a common occurrence, but usually involve whales and other cetaceans. Scientists aren’t sure exactly what causes them, but disease has been a factor in the past. In most cases, stranded animals die.

James Barnett of the Cornwall Marine Pathology Team, said Newsweek that brain infections have previously been found in stranded marine animals, however, at present there is insufficient data to determine whether this is of concern.

“The other thing that came out of the autopsy was that the eyes were badly damaged,” he said. “There is a copepod parasite that is known to attach to the eyes of Greenland sharks and can damage the surface (cornea). No copepods were visible on the eyes of this shark, but it is possible that they were lost before the animal recovered.”

Just days before the body was discovered, the Association for the Study and Conservation of Selachians said a Greenland shark had been sighted off the island of Ouessant.

Further examination of the shark’s tail during the autopsy confirmed that it was probably the same.

ZSL’s Cetacean Stranding Investigation Program (CSIP) project manager Rob Deaville said in a press release that the “unfortunate and extraordinary stranding” gave scientists insight into the misunderstood species.

“Finding out that this shark had meningitis is probably a world first, but the significance of this in terms of broader stressors is unknown. the ocean, but there’s not enough evidence at this point to make any connections,” Deaville said.

Greenland shark
The autopsy revealed an infection in the brain, which would have caused the shark to wander away from its deep-sea habitat
Cornwall Marine Pathology Team


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