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An Arctic shark found in Belize has researchers pondering deep sea discoveries

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

An ancient Arctic giant was recently discovered in the tropics off the coast of Belize. And one of the researchers who pulled it up from the depths joins us now. Devanshi Kasana, a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University's Predator Ecology and Conservation Lab, is speaking with us from Belize. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

DEVANSHI KASANA: I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today.

SHAPIRO: So you were out on the water tagging tiger sharks, and you found something that was definitely not a tiger shark. Tell us about what it was.

KASANA: So as we peer down and we looked out into the water, we just saw, like, a large-ish shadow, and that just kept getting bigger and bigger. And it was a weird-looking creature. And so right off the bat, we weren't quite sure what it was. But after much debate, we found out that it was actually an individual that belongs to a family of sharks that we refer to as sleeper sharks. And the more commonly known species in that family is the Greenland shark. And it was very, very surprising because the literature that exists is more common for the higher latitude regions for these individuals because they are found in cold surface waters, and so they are just easily accessible.

SHAPIRO: Now, you've said that it looked really, really old. This is a species that can live for centuries. What does an old shark look like? They don't have gray hair. Like, are they wrinkled? I mean, what does it look like when a shark is really old?

KASANA: It's hard to explain, honestly, but I looked at it, and I thought, yes, this could have existed in, like, prehistoric times or in the time where dinosaurs roamed the Earth. And so it was very sluggish. It was very slow moving on the surface, which is a very common behavioral trait for that species.

SHAPIRO: These kinds of sharks can live to be 500 years old. It's incredible to think that this might have been alive when Magellan set sail to circumnavigate the globe. How did you feel looking at this ancient, enormous creature?

KASANA: It's absolutely wild - right? - when you think about it like that in terms of the time. It was part confusion and part surprise. But no, of course, it is exciting in hindsight to have been a part of something that, you know, is the stepping stone to perhaps more research and protection for the species in this region.

SHAPIRO: Scientifically, what is the significance of finding this sort of shark that is more typically found in shallow waters in the Arctic deep in the tropics off the coast of Belize?

KASANA: So, like you rightly said, there are reports of these species being found more commonly in the higher latitudes where the surface waters are very cold. However, researchers had a hypothesis, and they said because of the temperature preference of this species, how they can tolerate really cold water, essentially, they could be found throughout the globe, but just in the higher latitudes or in the polar regions, they'll be up higher in the water column. And then as you went closer to the equator, they still could potentially exist, but they were just much deeper down in the water column. And so this discovery is actually the first record of, you know, something to support that hypothesis from the Western Caribbean.

SHAPIRO: You know, you are getting your Ph.D. researching tiger sharks. And here you have made this almost accidental discovery of a completely unrelated species in an area where it's not usually found, is this going to change your career path?

KASANA: I'm very grateful for having had this experience, but as a researcher, I always like for my science to speak for my work and myself. And so I hope this is good sort of exposure, but at the same time, I will continue doing the work that I do.

SHAPIRO: You're going to stick with the predators.

KASANA: If you're asking me if I'm going to change my study species, no, I'm not 'cause what are the chances of me finding another one of these animals again? I don't know. I may as well buy a lottery ticket, right?

SHAPIRO: Right. Devanshi Kasana is a Ph.D. candidate at Florida International University, talking with us about the incredibly rare discovery of a Greenland shark in the tropics. Thank you very much for sharing your story with us.

KASANA: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Ashley Brown is a senior editor for All Things Considered.

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