Published: Thu, January 23, 2020
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Marine Biologists Solve Mystery of How 'Walking' Sharks Split | Biology

Marine Biologists Solve Mystery of How 'Walking' Sharks Split | Biology

While the image of a shark chasing you onto a sandy beach may now be firmly planted in your mind, that's not how the physiology of these animals works - and there's nothing to fear from these species found in tropical waters between northern Australia and New Guinea (unless you're a tiny marine animal, that is).

The research team compared the mitochondrial DNA found in these sharks with five other previously known species and ran a genetic analysis on tissue samples extracted from the walking sharks. It may be a novel process, but it may have also started a long time ago.

Ever heard of walking sharks? A total of nine such species of walking sharks were identified in the new study, including the latest addition.

Despite their scary sounding name, the 2-feet-long walking sharks don't pose a threat to humans, Dudgeon said.

However, researchers do suggest that the evolution of these sharks was influenced by tectonic movement in the area - particularly the tectonic plate movement approximately 20 to 5 million years ago that completed Australia's break-up from the supercontinent Gondwana.

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They have also developed the ability to survive in low oxygen environments, meaning they can shuffle through shallow water and even lift themselves out of the sea to move between pools at low tide.

Instead, the black-and-white fish's "ability to withstand low-oxygen environments and walk on their fins gives them a remarkable edge over their prey of small crustaceans and molluscs", says Dudgeon. Walking sharks are tidal and can continue to stay on the surface when the waters are drawn and can be hunted on a shallow ground, thanks to their powerful fins. "These unique features are not shared with their closest relatives the bamboo sharks or more distant relatives in the carpet shark order including wobbegongs and whale sharks".

Hemiscyllum species like the epaulette shark aren't monsters with mouths full of knives.

"We believe there are more walking shark species still waiting to be discovered", Dudgeon said in the report. Ultimately, this separation between populations could lead to the development of new species.

Amazingly, the team discovered that "walking" sharks evolved just 9 million years ago, making them the youngest sharks on the planet. Other sharks in this genus could very well be added to this list soon. "It's essential that local communities, governments, and the global public continue working to establish marine protected areas to help ensure our ocean's biodiversity continues to flourish".

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