Image: This specimen of a cookiecutter shark, Isistius brasiliensis, is housed in the Florida Museum of Natural History collections on the University of Florida campus. Credit: Florida Museum of Natural History photo by Kristen Grace.
The first documented cookiecutter shark attack on a live human resulted in crater-like wounds, with the shark biting its victim like a "melon baller" tearing through flesh, according to a new Pacific Science study.
The victim, Michael Spalding, is a long-distance swimmer who thankfully lived to tell the tale. (Spalding recalls the attack in this video.)
Although cookiecutter sharks are relatively small, this shark species' unique jaws are built for scooping out flesh. Now that summer is here, shark experts are concerned that recreational water users might encounter these hungry predators, which could confuse humans for their regular squid or fish prey, perhaps due to movement.
You can get an idea of the kind of damage this shark inflicts in the below photo, taken by John Soward. It shows a cookiecutter shark-bitten tuna recovered from the Bahamas.
"Not only is (the cookiecutter shark bite) painful, but it presents a difficult circumstance for recovery in the sense that there has to be plastic surgery to close the wound and you have permanent tissue loss," co-author George Burgess was quoted as saying in a UFL press release. "It's not as scary as 'Jaws,' but it's very different from any other kind of attack we have in the International Shark Attack File because of the size of the shark and the modus operandi."
The March 16, 2009, incident involved a cookiecutter shark repeatedly attacking Spalding as he attempted to cross the Alenuihaha Channel from Hawaii to Maui. After sunset on that day, Spalding first felt a "pin prick" sensation on his chest, which turned out to be a cookiecutter shark nibble. (Sharks often take a taste before going in for a second chomp.) The shark later continued to bite, even attacking Spalding as he climbed into a rescue kayak during the event.
The International Shark Attack File only lists two other incidents involving cookiecutters, and both were judged to be inflicted post-mortem. Although the sharks normally go after smaller prey, they can be quite scrappy and tenacious, as evidenced by painful-looking bite marks found on dolphins, tunas (per the above pic), big swordfish and even whales. It's no wonder that biologist and shark expert Stewart Springer nicknamed cookiecutters "demon whale biters."
The shark's melon-baller biting technique results from the arrangement of its jaws and teeth. Unlike other sharks, the cookiecutter's teeth are connected at the bottom in the lower jaw. When feeding, the shark bites its victim and then rotates to remove a plug of flesh.
Image: Cookiecutter shark jaws; Credit: Randy Honebrink/ Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources.
“They have the biggest teeth of any shark in relation to the size of their jaws,” he said. “They look like the cartoon sharks you see with oversized teeth.”
Swimmers may be able to protect themselves from cookiecutter shark attacks by wearing a thick wetsuit, according to some experts. But I don't know about you, if I saw one of these sharks coming at me, I wouldn't want to rely on my wetsuit's quality. Additional tips on how to prevent shark attacks are shared in this Discovery News story.