New ‘walking’ shark species found off Halmahera

Walking shark: Hemiscyllium, the walking shark, is seen here in waters near Halmahera. Courtesy of CI/Mark V. Erdmann

Walking shark: Hemiscyllium, the walking shark, is seen here in waters near Halmahera. Courtesy of CI/Mark V. Erdmann

A new species of “walking” shark has been found in the waters off Halmahera Island, North Maluku, an environmental group confirmed on Sunday.

The shark, Hemiscyllium halmahera, used its four fins to wriggle across the seabed and forage for small fish and crustaceans, rather than swimming in the ocean, scientists from Conservation International (CI) said on Sunday.

“This shark is harmless and it does not swim but walks like a gecko. It doesn’t have typical shark teeth, either; it has teeth to crush small shelled animals,” said Mark Erdmann, a senior adviser to CI’s marine program.

Erdmann said that because of its inability to swim swiftly through the sea, the shark only ate small animals on the seabed, such as crabs, shrimps, molluscs and small fish.

The shark only swims if it feels threatened by a predator.

The new species is not the first “walking” shark found in Indonesian waters.

“Walking sharks have also been found in Kaimana and Cendrawasih, West Papua, in the past decade, but I can tell that this one is much smaller,” Erdmann told The Jakarta Post.

He said the new species found in Halmahera was smaller at only 83 centimeters in length and 1.5 kilograms in weight, while its cousins in Kaimana could grow to 100 cm.

The shark, which has a distinctive mottled brown and white color, was first photographed by British diver Graham Abbott during a vacation to Halmahera in 2007.

Abbott then sent the photo to CI to verify if the species was similar to the one in West Papua.

CI then conducted a survey in conjunction with local government, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI), Khairun University, the Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in 2008, when another walking shark was photographed in the same waters.

After conducting research on the two specimens of the Halmahera walking sharks, CI officially announced that the Halmahera walking shark was a new species in the Journal of Ichtyology in July.

A researcher from LIPI’s Oceanography Research Center, Fahmi, who is currently studying walking sharks, said the finding highlighted the diversity of eastern Indonesia’s marine biodiversity.

He said that the walking shark found in Halmahera was the third species of walking shark found in eastern Indonesia in the last six years.

Fahmi added that there were only nine species of walking shark in the world, six of which lived in Indonesian waters, while another three species were scattered in the oceans surrounding Papua New Guinea (PNG) and northern Australia.

He said, as quoted by kompas.com, that the first ever walking shark, known as Hemiscyllium ocellatum, was found in Australia in the 1800s, while the first species of walking shark in Indonesia was found in Kaimana and Cendrawasih in 2008.

Mark said the interesting finding from his research into walking sharks was that they were similarly distributed across the region to Cendrawasih birds. He said that the birds were readily found in Papua and PNG, and some could also be found in North Maluku and Australia.

Mark estimated that there were currently around 10,000 walking sharks of all species in Indonesian waters, while there were 50,000 to 100,000 in Northern Australia. The Jakarta Post

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