Albatross vs Shark

This beauty and the beast tale did not end happily ever after for either character.

Northern royal albatross and seal shark specimens on lab table at Te Papa

An unusual find on a Wellington beach. Photographer: Alan Tennyson © Te Papa

Te Papa staff member Hokimate Harwood collected a rather smelly deceased albatross on Wellington’s south coast on 15 November.

A Shark Tale

In the lab we were astounded to see a shark’s tail protruding from its neck. When we cut the dead bird open we found that the shark was intact and reached the entire length of the bird’s body cavity! The shark was completely undigested – no doubt it had been protected by its tough, sandpaper-like skin – and we speculate that the bird choked on the fish.

Shark tail protruding through hole in northern royal albatross neck

The shark’s tail protrudes through a hole in the albatross’ neck. Photographer: Alan Tennyson © Te Papa

Seal shark head and tail protruding through dissected northern royal albatross specimen

The seal shark is as long as the albatross’ body (arrows show the shark’s nose and tail). Photographer: Alan Tennyson © Te Papa

A little shark that can take on a whale

This was no ordinary looking shark – it was a seal shark (Dalatias licha), a worldwide species with a particularly vicious set of teeth distributed in a circular arrangement in its jaws. It uses these teeth for bandsawing chunks out of creatures as big as whales. A cousin, the aptly named cookiecutter shark (Isistius brasiliensis), has similarly delightful habits, including sometimes munching on submarines and humans! We looked inside the shark’s gut also but there was no evidence that it had been eating the albatross from the inside.

Seal shark head, jaws open showing teeth

The unhappy face of the seal shark showing its nasty looking chompers. Photographer: Alan Tennyson © Te Papa

An untimely end for bird and shark

The unlucky bird was a northern royal albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) – one of the world’s largest seabirds and the species famous for nesting at Taiaroa Head, Dunedin (although its main colonies are on the Chatham Islands).  The graceful flying ability of albatrosses is not matched by their less wholesome diet, which consists largely of scavenged food, such as dead squid and fish, found floating on the surface. As seal sharks are a deep water species, we suspect that the hungry bird gulped down the shark which it found as waste from a trawler, and thus both bird and shark met an untimely end.

What happens next?

Te Papa will skeletonise both specimens for its permanent research collections.  These will be used mainly for identifying fossil remains. Some of the oldest known fossils of a seal shark are from the Eocene of New Zealand – c.40 million years ago.

Thanks to Tom Shultz and Colin Miskelly for their assistance, Andrew Stewart for identifying the shark, and Hokimate for bringing in the unfortunate creatures.

10 Responses

  1. Tina

    A great story, colourfully recounted! Thanks, especially for the gruesome bits – best way to teach science. An interesting variation on ‘I know an old lady who swallowed a fly’.

  2. DT

    Incredible story; it’s made me really curious about their sizes. How big did the albatross and the shark measure?

    • Alan Tennyson

      The shark was 67 cm long, so that is about the length of this bird’s body cavity also. If you add on the length of bird’s tail and beak, it would be about 115 cm long. The northern royal is huge – even for an albatross – it has a wingspan of about 3 m.

  3. Stuart nicholson

    An interesting tale of a tail 🙂 Thanks, team!

  4. Peter Bowmar

    Thanks Te Papa! A really unique find. Would it be considered normal for albatross to target fish of that relative size and type? Thanks again for the interesting and fun facts

    • Alan Tennyson

      Albatrosses are mainly scavengers, so they eat what they can get. I once saw one eating a giant box of ice cream that had been discarded off a boat! Normally albatrosses wouldn’t eat prey as large as this seal shark. They have very sharp beaks so usually cut or tear bits off larger prey.

  5. vera

    AMAZING!!!!!! This makes me want to be a scientist when I grow up even if I’m now 43!


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