In 2014, I posted a cool video about a frilled shark that was filmed swimming. That’s when I learned about the existence of this beautiful streamlined, deep ocean shark species. Recently, the story of another one of these specimens caught by Portuguese researchers examining fish hauls has been making the round on science and general news sites.
These sharks (Chlamydoselachus anguineus) are described by FishBase as:
An uncommon primitive shark found on outer continental and insular shelves and upper slopes, usually between 120 and 1,280 m but occasionally caught at the surface. Feeds on other sharks, squid and bony fish
[…] Not dangerous but teeth are sharp enough to inflict lacerations on the hands of the unwary scientist examining its mouth. Incidental in bottom trawl catches and utilized as fishmeal and as food fish.
How did the media treat these creatures, though?
Like a character in a horror story. It was appalling. And, sadly, ubiquitous.
Note the above description of the animal as “uncommon”. In the sensationalized media, that became “rare” which is not quite true as it’s not too rare for them to be spotted in a fish haul. And it was certainly not a NEW species as some writers have hinted.
“Primitive” became “living fossil” – a terrible term that some writers interpret as “totally unchanged” for 80 million years. Nothing that reproduces goes unchanged. Evolution happens and that can be seen clearly via a DNA comparison if not necessarily in obvious outward appearance. The nuance of a population of animals whose body plan and environmental niche have been around for millions of years was not explained at all. VICE at least noted they aren’t that rare but then fell into the dumb “horror” theme. Their “Frilled shark appreciation post” fell way short and I’m usurping that title for this post because the author, frankly, failed at PR for this awesome critter.
The fish’s sharp teeth and eel-like form was disturbing enough to oceanically-ignorant writers for them to declare these animals “nightmares”. Maybe to you, non-science writer, who needs to get to an aquarium, but not to some of us more zoologically-literate folks.
Sheesh! Take a look at these stupid headlines:
Popular Science nearly hits the goal of a decent article with this explanation, “No, scientists didn’t just trawl up some time-traveling dinosaur fish” Oh… so close, PopSci. But, then you acted as if it was a click-bait contest and went on to present several more “scary” shark examples. Dumb, dumb, dumb.
Science Alert just reposted a piece from another source retitling it: “This Nightmare Shark with A Snake Head and 300 Teeth is Absolutely Horrifying”. That original piece, in the Washington Post, is by non-scientist, general correspondent, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. It was a particularly absurd piece originally titled “This ancient shark with a snake head and 300 teeth is why we should just say nope to the ocean” Pathetic.
How about a big old “NOPE” to having Wootson write any more science-themed content because he is doing a disservice to science and the Washington Post journalistic standards. Wootson seems to only have encounters with sea creatures as part of a restaurant seafood menu and is appalled by deep-sea organisms in general. He inserts a number of inaccurate and hyperbolic opinions into this piece such as describing the finding of the latest specimen of a “sea-dwelling, serpentine conglomeration of nightmare fuel” as “an accident that sounds vaguely like the plot of a straight-to-video horror movie”.
The researchers pulled it up in a fishing net. And, you know what? I bet they were (positively) THRILLED to do so. It’s actually difficult to find a reputable video or commentary that doesn’t call this animal hideously scary. As a person who accepts that sharks (and snakes, spiders, and insects) deserve their place in nature same as people (who are the most deliberately horrible creatures on earth), this is disturbing.
Wootson has used the term “nightmare fuel” before to describe incredible and stunning photos of deep-sea creatures earlier this year: “Australian scientists went looking for deep sea creatures and pulled up your nightmares instead”. I thought it was just a terrible headline writer responsible for that one. It wasn’t. I complained about that title to WaPo, his use of horror-movie tropes (calling animals “faceless” and saying they “rip out chunks of flesh”), and his portrayal of a biologically-exciting documentation of species as “seawater-scented nightmare fuel” instead. Wootson, stop writing about this stuff. Just stop. You don’t understand how nature works and it seems like you don’t care, either.
He adds in this latest article that “it seems as if every other day we’re finding out something new and unsettling”. It’s not new, and finding it “unsettling” is your hangup I don’t share.
Wootson reiterates how freaked out he is by a thing that he will likely never encounter in a real-life situation. He calls the creature’s dentition “300 more reasons to never go farther than the beach: hundreds of needle-sharp teeth, neatly lined in 25 rows”. Good. Don’t even go to the beach, then. One of these “horrifying” creatures might accidentally wash up and cause you to run away screaming.
Twice in the same article Wootson refers to the frilled shark as one of the “creepiest animals” alive. What an appalling display of ignorance and arrogance of life on earth and a distinct lack of curiosity about why the animals look the way they do!
In the comments section of his latest hatred-of-sea-animals post, some readers liked his dramatic and unscientific language, some saw it as horror satire, and a few called it out as sophomoric and inappropriate. The job of a journalist is to tell us the accurate story, not to express his utter repulsion of wildlife.
We don’t lack ignorant people saying it’s right to kill every ugly thing with fire because, well, it’s ugly and they don’t like it or think it’s dangerous (like sharks). We do, however, lack a reverence for ocean life and ecology that is critical to the health of the planet and our own human survival. And we lack respectable science journalism that can educate the public. For the Washington Post to allow this type of juvenile content to be portrayed as “Speaking of Science” is awful. I’m publicly asking them to stop giving Wootson topics he obviously can’t handle without experiencing nightmares. Get someone who actually likes natural wonders to write your science posts – there are plenty of qualified people available to do so.