Scientists identify first known 'vegetarian' shark

Scientists identify first known 'vegetarian' shark”

Scientists have now discovered that one of the most common sharks in the world is actually an omnivore.

Scientists at the University of California in Irvine, and Florida International University in Miami, made a decision to investigate the sharks' dietary habits after reading reports of the fish chomping on seagrass, the flowering marine plant that forms subsea meadows in some coastal waters.

Although co-authors Samantha Leigh, Yannis Papastamatiou, and Donovan German presented their findings on the shark's unusual seagrass-eating habits at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology's annual meeting in January, the newly published study states that this is the "first species of shark ever to be shown to have an omnivorous digestive strategy", the authors wrote. "We have never seen a shark consume this seagrass, let alone that's able to digest it". They also showed the fish digested the seagrass using enzymes that broke down the plants, like starch and cellulose, since their razor-sharp teeth aren't well suited for chewing. (Chris huh/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 [])Back in 2007, other scientists found through studying the stomach contents of bonnethead sharks that, surprisingly, more than half of what they'd eaten was seagrass.

"We have always thought of sharks as strict carnivores, but the bonnethead is throwing a wrench into that idea by digesting a fair amount of the seagrass that they consume".

Sharks are supposed to be the quintessential carnivores, with stomachs specially designed for digesting high-protein foods; they're built to eat meat and nothing else.

The bonnethead shark is commonly found in the shallow waters of the Western Atlantic, Eastern Pacific, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Seagrass meadows, the scientists say, represent the most widespread coastal ecosystem on the planet, providing many important ecological and food-based services. They thought the sharks must have picked up some grass as it nabbed a meaty crab.

The sharks also absorbed nutrients from the seagrass and even gained weight on the diet, Leigh and team report today in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

While most sharks crave fresh meat, the bonnethead shark, which is a relative of the iconic hammerhead, is actually just fine with salad. At the end of the three-week testing period, the team analyzed the sharks' fecal matter and digestive systems, ultimately concluding that the bonnetheads did, in fact, digest and absorb nutrients offered by the seagrass. "However, the bonnethead shark had very high levels of these types of enzymes!" Their great numbers will force researchers to re-evaluate the role that bonnetheads play in seagrass meadows, which are critical ecosystems that provide habitat for thousands of fish species, filter the surrounding water, act as a sink for atmospheric CO2, and produce large quantities of oxygen.

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