Sharkgate: Scientists Claim ‘Rare Shark’ in Photo Is Actually Just a Plastic Toy

Sharkgate: Scientists Claim ‘Rare Shark’ in Photo Is Actually Just a Plastic Toy

A deep-sea drama is unfolding in the world of shark science. An exciting scientific record of a rare species in a new place might actually 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 scepticism that an alleged photo of a goblin shark really shows a once-living animal.

If it were authentic, the image in question would be the first-ever record of the species in the Mediterranean Sea — a notable and important range expansion for the uncommon animal. But if it’s actually a picture 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 fast and frequently 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 had ever been observed in the Mediterranean Sea, according to the article published in the journal Mediterranean Marine Science in May 2022. In that paper, the researchers said they’d been sent the photograph by a citizen scientist; none of the team had personally seen or examined the specimen.

Goblin sharks are elusive creatures, rarely seen dead or living. Not much is known about their reproduction or habits, in large part because they spend most of their lives thousands of feet below the surface of the ocean. They are thought to be widely distributed, and legitimate specimens have been found in different parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. Yet no one had ever published evidence of a goblin shark in the Mediterranean Sea, until this study.

Months after that first publication, in November 2022, a group of ichthyologists and independent researchers responded with a comment on the initial paper, in the same scientific journal, questioning the specimen’s legitimacy. “On close examination of this image…doubts arise about the authenticity,” they wrote. The commenters listed 10 reasons for their scepticism, from the shape of the jaw and other bits on the “specimen” in the photograph, to the incorrect number of gills, the rigidity of the fins, and the lack of detail in the article description.

In response, the original study authors published their own follow-up comment in January — doubling down on the specimen’s authenticity and attempting to rebut each of the concerns. Both comments were published online for the first time this Monday.

A Rebuttal to a Rebuttal

Yet with the rebuttal, inconsistencies and more holes emerged, and the goblin shark truthers remain unconvinced. “In my opinion, it is a model of a such a shark,” said Jürgen Pollerspöck, an independent shark researcher and lead author of the November 2022 comment, in an email to Gizmodo. When he first saw the picture, he said he “immediately noticed the ‘unnatural look’ of the shark. Stranded animals often show injuries or signs of decomposition.” But the photographed specimen didn’t.

He also pointed out that the original article described a supposedly juvenile goblin shark, with an estimated length of 80 centimeters. In their reply, the authors said that, actually, the citizen scientist estimated the total specimen length of 17 to 20 centimeters, and it could potentially be a shark embryo, not a juvenile. In Pollerspöck’s view, 20 centimeters is too small to be a viable goblin shark, immature, embryonic, or otherwise.

Gizmodo reached out to the lead researcher who had initially published the alleged goblin shark record, as well as the editor in chief of the journal. Neither responded by 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 one tweet, Shiffman posted an eBay link to a model toy goblin shark that seems a particularly good match for the photo.

Deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler also chimed in on Twitter to say he was convinced by the particular eBay toy. “The mystery comes 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, affirming their observations that the photographed “shark” looks very much like the toy shark.

But one marine researcher took the quest further. Matthew McDavitt, who is a lawyer by trade but a published independent shark researcher in his free time, compiled his own image comparisons and report on the controversy, which he shared with Gizmodo.

The top photo is the alleged specimen found on a beach. The bottom photo is the toy shark that many believe fooled the scientists. Highlighted is what Matthew McDavitt believes is the plastic mould seam, visible on the purported real animal.  (Image: Matthew McDavitt)
The top photo is the alleged specimen found on a beach. The bottom photo is the toy shark that many believe fooled the scientists. Highlighted is what Matthew McDavitt believes is the plastic mould seam, visible on the purported real animal. (Image: Matthew McDavitt)

The original photo “just looked off,” McDavitt told Gizmodo in a phone call. He cited the drooping rostrum, tail, and mouth as things that didn’t add up with his knowledge of actual goblin sharks. He also reiterated Pollerspöck’s concern about size. “It just didn’t look right.”

This photo collage shows the actual, published picture (middle right) alongside photos of the toy shark many believe is actually shown in the published photograph.  (Graphic: Matthew McDavitt)
This photo collage shows the actual, published picture (middle right) alongside photos of the toy shark many believe is actually shown in the published photograph. (Graphic: Matthew McDavitt)

McDavitt said this wouldn’t be the first time that a false photo had been published as evidence of a fish range expansion (yes, sharks are fish). The researcher relayed a story in which he previously noticed some inconsistencies in a picture of a rare wedge fish, published as first evidence of a that species living off the coast of Portugal. Ultimately, he said, the picture 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 real negative impacts on researchers. McDavitt noted that, in the wedge fish example, he ended up hearing from some scientists who had been prepared to fund an expedition to survey the waters off of Portugal to find more examples of the rare fish. Clearly, they would’ve been disappointed.

A marine biologist who requested anonymity out of fear of professional harm told Gizmodo in a phone call that he’s pretty confident the goblin shark photo is a fake. Upon first looking at the image, he felt it wasn’t right, he said. The scientist explained that this isn’t how most species records are presented — with a single photograph without even a scale bar.

Though he doesn’t know the publishing scientists personally, he doesn’t believe they had malicious intentions. In his view, they failed to do 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 major issue here is 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 here would be for either the original researchers to withdraw their paper or for the journal to issue a retraction, both said.

Pollerspöck echoed the sentiment. The lead researcher on the goblin shark study is a student, he pointed out. “In my opinion, the problem and responsibility lies more with the editor of the journal and the reviewers,” he wrote to Gizmodo. He is “convinced that it was an accident,” on the original authors’ part.

It’s Fantastic. Is It Plastic?

Marine scientists and shark enthusiasts aren’t the only ones who told Gizmodo the “goblin shark” specimen seems suspect. Two plastics experts echoed concerns about the veracity of the alleged fish.

“I think it’s very possible that it could be [a] degraded plastic toy,” Joana Sipe, a plastic degradation researcher at Duke University, told Gizmodo in a phone call. Sipe said she couldn’t possibly be certain, as the only way to determine the material would be to inspect it directly, but that lots of aspects of the photo suggest the “shark” could be a moulded synthetic material.

She agreed that the line next to the mouth could easily be a seam from machine-moulded plastic. Then there are the flecks of what could be sand, or might instead be remnant plastic dye sticking to the model. Sipe also pointed out the “L” shaped dark imprint on the tale, which she said looked like intentional colour shading.

Further, the droopiness of the tail and rostrum (i.e. shark snout), and faded colour could be the result of heat or wear on a plastic toy — especially out in the sun on a Greek beach, Sipe added.

Greg Merrill, a Duke University graduate student who studies plastic pollution in marine mammals, also believed the photographed “animal” was a plastic model. “I am not a shark expert; I study whales and plastic,” he wrote to Gizmodo in an email. Nonetheless, “I’m confident this is a toy,” he said.

His critique echoed those of other researchers; he also pointed out the lack of photo scale and the lax description in the original publication. He noted that it’s incredibly rare to find a fully intact specimen of any marine organism washed up on a beach. “Scavengers — crabs, gulls, etc — are keen on a free meal and will often consume soft tissues, like the eyes, almost immediately,” Merrill wrote. “This is if the animal ever makes it ashore.”

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