Scientists claim that the Goblin Shark in the photo is just a plastic toy

A deep-sea drama unfolds in the world of shark science. An exciting scientific record of a rare species in a new location may actually just be a photo of a plastic toy.

Through published comments, tweets and in conversations with Gizmodo, biologists, shark enthusiasts and other experts have expressed extreme skepticism that a purported photo of a goblin shark really shows a once-living animal.

If authentic, the image in question would be the first ever record of the species in the Mediterranean – a remarkable and important range expansion for the uncommon animal. But if it is indeed an image of a toy goblin shark, as multiple sources suggest, it is a cautionary tale about citizen science, careless editing and peer review, and the pressure scientists face to publish new findings as quickly and frequently as possible.

To clear up this shark controversy, let’s start from the beginning.

The published record

Last year, scientists published a paper where they documented a suspected juvenile goblin shark specimen found dead and washed up on a beach in Greece. It was the first time one of those nightmarish-looking deep-sea sharks had ever been observed in the Mediterranean, according to the article published in the journal Mediterranean Marine Science in May 2022. In that paper, the researchers said they had been sent the photograph by a citizen scientist; none of the team had personally seen or examined the specimen.

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

Months after the initial publication, in November 2022, a group of ichthyologists and independent researchers responded with a comment on the introductory paper, in the same scientific journal, questioning the legitimacy of the sample. “Upon closer examination of this image … doubts arise as to its authenticity,” they wrote. The commenters listed 10 reasons for their skepticism, from the shape of the jaw and other bits of the “specimen” in the photograph, to the wrong number of gills, the stiffness of the fins and the lack of detail in the article’s description.

In response, the original study authors published their own follow-up comment in January – doubling down on the sample’s authenticity and attempting to disprove 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 appeared, and the goblin shark truthers remain unconvinced. “In my opinion, it is a model of such a shark,” Jürgen Pollerspöck, an independent shark researcher and lead author of the November 2022 commentary, said in an email to Gizmodo. When he first saw the photo, he said he “immediately noticed the ‘unnatural appearance’ of the shark. Stranded animals often show damage or signs of decomposition.” But the photographed specimen did not.

He also pointed out that the original article described a suspected juvenile goblin shark with an estimated length of 80 centimeters. In their response, the authors said that the citizen scientist actually estimated the total specimen length at 17 to 20 centimeters, and it could potentially be a shark fetus, 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 originally published the alleged goblin shark record, as well as the editor-in-chief of the journal. Neither has responded at the time of publication.

The Internet weighs in

Meanwhile, the “is it a real shark” discussion had moved online. David Shiffman, a shark ecologist and marine biologist, weighed in on Twitter for at least two different threads. IN a tweetShiffman wrote an eBay link for a model toy goblin shark that seems a particularly good match for the image.

Deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler also chimed in on Twitter to say he was convinced by the particular eBay toy. “The mystery ends. 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 a lot like a toy shark.”

Several shark enthusiasts responded to Thaler and Shiffman’s tweets, confirming their observations that the photographed “shark” closely resembles the toy shark.

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

Comparison image of toy shark and alleged shark sample

The top image is the alleged specimen found on a beach. The bottom image is the toy shark that many believe fooled the researchers. Highlighted is what Matthew McDavitt believes is the plastic mold seam visible on the alleged real animal.
Image: Matthew McDavitt

The original image “just looked,” McDavitt told Gizmodo in a phone call. He quoted the drooping lectern, tail and mouth as things that did not match his knowledge of actual goblin sharks. He also echoed Pollerspöck’s concern about size. “It just didn’t look right.”

Photo collage

This photo collage shows the actual published image (center right) along with images of the toy shark that many believe is actually shown in the published photograph.
Graphically: Matthew McDavitt

McDavitt said this wouldn’t be the first time a fake photo had been published as evidence of an expansion of the fishing grounds (yes, sharks are fish). The researcher relayed a story where he previously noticed some discrepancies in a picture 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 diving photo.

Situations like this, he said, can have real negative consequences for researchers. McDavitt noted that in the example of the wedgefish, he ended up hearing from some scientists who had been prepared to fund an expedition to survey the waters off Portugal to find more examples of the rare fish. Obviously, 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 saw the picture, he felt it wasn’t right, he said. The researcher explained that this is not how most species records are presented – with a single photograph without even a scale.

Although he does not know the publishing scientists personally, he does not believe they had malicious intent. In his opinion, they failed to do due diligence. Whether or not the citizen scientist who sent them the photo knew it wasn’t a real goblin shark isn’t clear, he said.

Both the marine biologist and McDavitt said a major problem here is negligence on the part of the publishing journal and the general pressure in academia to publish new and exciting findings. The most responsible and best outcome here would be for either the original researchers to retract 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 the responsibility lies more with the editor of the journal and the reviewers,” he wrote to Gizmodo. He is “convinced it was an accident,” on the part of the original writers.

It is fantastic. Is it plastic?

Marine scientists and shark enthusiasts aren’t the only ones who told Gizmodo that the “goblin shark” specimen seems suspicious. 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 sure, since the only way to determine the material would be to inspect it directly, but that many aspects of the image suggest the “shark” could be a molded synthetic material.

She agreed that the line next to the mouth could easily be a seam from machine-molded plastic. Then there are patches of what could be sand, or perhaps instead are remnants of plastic paint that adheres to the model. Sipe also pointed out the “L”-shaped dark imprint on the narrative, which she said looked like deliberate shading.

Additionally, the drooping tail and rostrum (i.e. shark snout) and faded color can be the result of heat or wear and tear on a plastic toy — especially out in the sun on a Greek beach, Sipe added.

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

His criticisms echoed those of other researchers; he also pointed out the lack of photo scale and the loose 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.—are eager for a free meal and will often consume soft tissue, like the eyes, almost immediately,” Merrill wrote. “This is if the animal ever comes ashore.”

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