The “demon whale-biter”, and why I am learning about an elusive little shark

By Dawn Barlow, PhD student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

There is an ancient Samoan legend that upon entry into a certain bay in Samoa, tuna would sacrifice pieces of their flesh to the community chief1. This was the explanation given for fish with circular shaped wounds where a plug of flesh had been removed. Similar round wounds are also observed on swordfish2, sharks3, and marine mammals including whales4,5, dolphins6, porpoises7, and pinnipeds8,9. In 1971, Everet C. Jones posited that the probable cause of these crater wounds was a small shark only 42-56 cm in length, Isistius brasiliensis1. The species was nicknamed “demon whale-biter” by Stewart Springer, who subsequently popularized the common name for the species, cookie cutter shark.

Figure 1. A yellowfin tuna with a circular bite, characteristic of a cookie cutter shark (Isistius brasiliensis). Photo: John Soward.

I am currently preparing a manuscript on blue whale skin condition. While this is only tangentially related to my doctoral research, it is an exciting side project that has encouraged me to stretch my comfort zone as an ecologist. This analysis of skin condition is part of a broader health assessment of blue whales in New Zealand, where we will be linking skin lesion severity with stress and reproductive hormone levels as well as body condition. Before I continue, I owe a major shout-out to Acacia Pepper, a senior undergraduate student at Oregon State University who has been working with me for nearly the past year through the Fisheries and Wildlife mentorship program. Acacia’s rigor in researching methodologies led us to develop a comprehensive protocol that can be applied widely to any cetacean photo-identification catalog. This method allows us to quantify prevalence and severity of different marking types in a standardized manner. Her passion for marine mammal science and interest in the subject matter is enough to excite this ecologist into fascination with wound morphology and blister concavity. Next thing you know, we are preparing a paper for publication together with P.I. Dr. Leigh Torres on a comprehensive skin condition assessment of blue whales that includes multiple markings and lesion types, but for the purpose of this blog post, I will share just a “bite-sized” piece of the story.

Figure 2. Jaws of a cookie cutter shark. Photo: George Burgess.

Back to the demon whale-biter. What do we know about cookie cutter sharks? Not a whole lot, it turns out. They are elusive, and are thought to live in deep (>1,000 m), offshore waters. They are considered to be both an ectoparasite and an ambush predator. Their distribution is tropical and sub-tropical. Much of what we know and assume about their distribution comes from the bite wounds they leave on their prey2.

In New Zealand where we study a unique population of blue whales10, the southernmost record of cookie cutter sharks is ~ 39⁰S11. We found that in our dataset of 148 photo-identified blue whales, 96% were affected by cookie cutter shark bites. Furthermore, 38% were categorized as having “severe” cookie cutter bite wounds or scars. The latitude of our blue whale sightings ranges from 29-48⁰S and blue whales are highly mobile, so any of the whales in our dataset could theoretically swim in and out of the known range of cookie cutter sharks. In our skin condition assessment, we also categorized cookie cutter bite “freshness” and phase of healing as follows:

We wanted to know if the freshness of cookie cutter shark bites was related in to the latitude at which the whales were photographed. Of the whales photographed north of 39⁰S (n=46), 76% had phase 1 or 2 cookie cutter shark bites present. In contrast, 57.1% of whales photographed south of 39⁰S (n=133) had phase 1 or 2 cookie cutter shark bites. It therefore appears that in New Zealand, the freshness of cookie cutter shark bites on blue whales is related to the latitude at which the whales were sighted, with fresher bites being more common at more northerly latitudes.

Figure 3. A whale with fresh cookie cutter shark bites, photographed in the Bay of Islands, latitude 35.164⁰S. Photo courtesy of Dr. Catherine Peters.
Figure 4. A whale with mostly healed cookie cutter shark bites, photographed off of Kaikoura, latitude 42.464⁰S. Photo courtesy of Jody Weir.

In the midst of a PhD on distribution modeling and habitat use of blue whales, I find myself reading about Samoan legends of tuna with missing flesh and descriptions of strange circular lesions from whaling records, and writing a paper about blue whale skin condition. Exciting “side projects” like this one emerge from rich datasets and good collaboration.

References

  1. Jones, E. C. Isistius brasiliensis, a squaloid shark, the probable cause of crater wounds on fishes and cetaceans. Fish. Bull. 69, 791–798 (1971).
  2. Papastamatiou, Y. P., Wetherbee, B. M., O’Sullivan, J., Goodmanlowe, G. D. & Lowe, C. G. Foraging ecology of Cookiecutter Sharks (Isistius brasiliensis) on pelagic fishes in Hawaii, inferred from prey bite wounds. Environ. Biol. Fishes 88, 361–368 (2010).
  3. Hoyos-Padilla, M., Papastamatiou, Y. P., O’Sullivan, J. & Lowe, C. G. Observation of an Attack by a Cookiecutter Shark ( Isistius brasiliensis ) on a White Shark ( Carcharodon carcharias ) . Pacific Sci. 67, 129–134 (2013).
  4. Mackintosh, N. A. & Wheeler, J. F. G. Southern blue and fin whales. Discov. Reports 1, 257–540 (1929).
  5. Best, P. B. & Photopoulou, T. Identifying the ‘demon whale-biter’: Patterns of scarring on large whales attributed to a cookie-cutter shark Isistius sp. PLoS One 11, (2016).
  6. Heithaus, M. R. Predator-prey and competitive interactions between sharks (order Selachii) and dolphins (suborder Odontoceti): A review. J. Zool. 253, 53–68 (2001).
  7. Van Utrecht, W. L. Wounds And Scars In The Skin Of The Common Porpoise, Phocaena Phocaena (L.). Mammalia 23, 100–122 (1959).
  8. Gallo‐Reynoso, J. ‐P & Figueroa‐Carranza, A. ‐L. A COOKIECUTTER SHARK WOUND ON A GUADALUPE FUR SEAL MALE. Mar. Mammal Sci. 8, 428–430 (1992).
  9. Le Boeuf, B. J., McCosker, J. E. & Hewitt, J. Crater wounds on northern elephant seals: the cookiecutter shark strikes again. Fish. Bull. 85, 387–392 (1987).
  10. Barlow, D. R. et al. Documentation of a New Zealand blue whale population based on multiple lines of evidence. Endanger. Species Res. 36, 27–40 (2018).
  11. Dwyer, S. L. & Visser, I. N. Cookie cutter shark (Isistius sp.) bites on cetaceans, with particular reference to killer whales (Orca) (Orcinus orca). Aquat. Mamm. 37, 111–138 (2011).
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