NEW ZEALAND—The largest known bioluminescent vertebrate shark species was recently discovered off the coast of New Zealand in one of the most unstudied marine ecosystems on the planet.
Although it’s suspected that over 50 of the 540 known shark species are already confirmed to be able to produce light, most of those dwell below 200 meters, making them difficult to find and study. However, at 1.8 meters, the kitefin shark has recently been determined to be the largest known shark species capable of sustaining bioluminescence.
Bioluminescent shark researcher and head scientist behind the find, Jerome Mallefet, told NPR in a recent interview that he was ready to give up before he made the groundbreaking discovery. As a marine biologist at the University of Louvain in Belgium, Mallefet has made his life’s work studying the various organisms that use bioluminescence to survive in the ocean.
“I was just like a kid in front of a Christmas tree,” he tells NPR’s Audie Cornish while recounting the discovery. “Sharks are the MacGyvers of bioluminescence use. It’s not the discovery of a new species, but it’s showing that it’s really luminous. And it’s the discovery of the pattern.”
Far from being simply decorative, it’s believed that sharks (and other species) use bioluminescence—the ability to self-produce light—as a form of camouflage to evade predators and fade into the hazy blue glow of the ocean.
“Below 200 meters,” he told Good Morning Europe in a separate interview, “you still have a faint blue deep light, so it’s not pitch black there. You have to go down to 1,000 meters to be in the complete darkness. So it’s the twilight zone down there, and if you have a bigger animal swimming beneath you, they can see your silhouette against the surface. But if you produce blue light with the same intensity as where you are, you disappear, and they cannot catch you.”