Shark was on the menu last week for a large female sand tiger shark in Seoul’s COEX Aquarium.
The creature, more than seven feet long, chowed down on her smaller tank mate, devouring the banded hound shark head-first. The little guy hung out of his killer’s mouth for 21 hours—slowly making his way through her digestive tract until only his tail poked out of her mouth.
Since the shark is female and her hapless prey was male, the “feminist shark” jokes did not take long to appear on Twitter.
Her new fans may be disappointed to learn this wasn’t completely normal behavior—and her sex had nothing to do with it. Chuck Bangley, a Ph.D. candidate at East Carolina University studying shark habitat use, said aquariums actually like sand tiger sharks because they’re big, scary-looking, and docile. They’re “intermittent feeders,” which means they only really eat when hungry—something that would typically keep them from snacking on tankmates.
They do eat other species of sharks, however, and they are known for embryonic cannibalism, a kind of gestational gladiatorial combat where the toughest hatchling devours its siblings while still in the womb.
An aquarium official told Reuters that this meal might have started as a territorial dispute, which Bangley agreed is possible.
“I think in this case the animal’s prey drive might have gotten kicked in somehow,” he said. “I have heard of instances where even a well fed sand tiger can’t help itself if there’s an injured fish or a sick fish in the tank.”
So why did this snack take so long to go down? It could be because the sand tiger shark overcommitted on the mouthful she took.
“Usually their food is a lot smaller in relation to their body size,” Bangley said. And sand tiger sharks are equipped with sharp teeth that curve backward into their heads, hooking their prey so the only direction their food can move is further into the shark’s mouth.
“It might have been the case that it bit this shark and then it couldn’t really spit it out because it was too big for it to work its way around the teeth,” he said. “Fish having eyes bigger than their stomach is pretty common in nature.”
Bangley couldn’t help himself. “It’s a shark-eat-shark world,” he said.