After an albatross specimen was collected on a Wellington beach and taken to Te Papa, curator Alan Tennyson and his colleagues were astounded to see a shark’s tail protruding from its neck.
This beauty and the beast tale did not end happily ever after for either character.
Te Papa staff member Hokimate Harwood collected a rather smelly deceased albatross on Wellington’s south coast on 15 November 2015.
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.
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.
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.