Goblin Shark or Plastic Toy? Scientists Retract Record of Supposed Rare Shark Sighting
A controversy in the world of shark science has come to a close. A group of scientists who published a record of what would be the first-ever goblin shark found in the Mediterranean Sea have retracted their work. The retraction, submitted March 20, follows Gizmodo’s earlier reporting on the saga.
As a brief refresher: The scientists published a short description of what they claimed was the first goblin shark in the Mediterranean, based on a single, low-quality photo provided to them by a citizen scientist in May 2022. The record appeared in the journal Mediterranean Marine Science. None of the researchers saw or interacted with that alleged specimen directly. The photo purporting to show the formerly living shark contained no scale, and the scientists were unable to firmly report its size.
Goblin sharks, elusive and distinctive (i.e. nightmarish) looking deep-sea fish, have been documented in many places around the world but never before in the Mediterranean Sea. If the 2022 record were genuine, it would represent an important range extension that could dictate future research funding or even marine conservation spending. Yet many doubt its validity.
Shark experts and marine biologists came across the published record last year and expressed skepticism online in a Facebook group and on Twitter, as well as in a November 2022 comment that was published by the journal. Critics of the record honed in on the photographed specimen’s unusual appearance. They noted its rigid fins, completeness, lack of visible damage, incorrect number of gill slits, small size, and the odd shape of certain bits, among other things. Simply put: Many sea life aficionados thought the specimen looked more like a figurine than an authentic dead shark.
In response, the study authors doubled down on their view that the specimen was real in their own rebuttal comment, published in January. Yet the shark science-world remained unconvinced by their argument, which suggested the odd-looking, unusually small specimen could’ve been a goblin shark embryo with a mouth deformed by ingesting ova in utero.
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Some shark researchers honed in on a particular plastic toy, for sale on eBay, which bears a striking resemblance to the photographed specimen. Gizmodo spoke with marine and plastics experts, all of whom doubted that the purported specimen photo showed a once-living animal.
“In my opinion, it is a model of a such a shark,” Jürgen Pollerspöck, an independent shark researcher and lead author of the November 2022 comment, told Gizmodo in an email last week
“It looks an awful lot like a toy shark,” deep-sea ecologist Andrew Thaler also said via email.
“I think it’s very possible that it could be [a] degraded plastic toy,” Joana Sipe, a scientist studying plastic degradation at Duke University, told Gizmodo in a March 17 phone call.
Independent shark researcher Matthew McDavitt produced a multi-page report outlining his own suspicions. He told Gizmodo that he attempted to submit his own comment to Mediterranean Marine Science but was denied, as the retraction process was already in progress.
Now, the study authors have officially issued an academic take-backsies. The retraction note was released online this week. It applies to both the initial publication as well as the authors’ follow-up comment. The meat of the notice is brief—shorter even than the retraction’s title. It simply reads:
The above authors remove these recent publications due to remaining uncertainty because they are based on a visual observation by a citizen (citizen science), without a specimen being available. The available information was not adequate to support this record based solely on photographic evidence and direct contact between the authors and the citizen.
“It is good that the data has been corrected. This shows that the control by the community works,” Pollerspöck wrote to Gizmodo.
“I, of course, think that retraction is the right decision,” McDavitt said in an email.
Gizmodo reached out to the study researchers for more information, but the scientists did not reply by time of publication. To the Daily Beast, though, they wrote that they still believe in the authenticity of the photographed specimen:
“Even though we have every reason to assume that the finding was authentic (several Mediterranean shark experts and [two] anonymous peer reviewers accepted and supported publication of this paper!), other colleagues caused a completely unethical controversy and claimed that the specimen was a discarded plastic figurine,” said co-author Frithjof Kuepper from the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. “In order to avoid further damage and given that the specimen had not been conserved by the citizen scientist in Anafi (Papadakis), we decided to retract the article.”
So, was it a plastic toy? Was it the first-ever goblin shark ever recorded in the Mediterranean Sea? Though it’s reasonable to speculate, ultimately, the world may never know for sure. The specimen wasn’t collected; it was simply photographed and left to the mercy of the sea. Goblin sharks may very well be out there, swimming in the Mediterranean’s depths and washing up on Greek beaches. If you think you’ve found a dead one, maybe give it a good squeeze—just to be sure.
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