Goblin sharks look like nightmare hallucinations: They have pink skin, beady eyes, and far too many too-skinny, too-pointy teeth. They are probably harmless to humans, but we don’t really know: Only a few dozen have been documented by scientists, mostly on the edges of continental shelves where shallow waters drop off into deep ocean.
Then, almost a year ago, a scientific paper announced a new sighting, this time on a beach in Greece. If real, this would be the first goblin shark spotted in the Mediterranean.
The paper cited, as evidence, a photo submitted by a citizen scientist. The photo showed what looks like a small goblin shark lying onshore. It had a long, tusk-like nose above a protruding mouth-face, and an elegant tail. If the question was, “what shark is this?,” “goblin shark” would be the correct answer.
To other researchers, though, the photo looked fishy. Or rather: It looked suspiciously un-fishy.
Lauren Leffer reported on the intrigue for Gizmodo; a few days later the authors retracted the paper, which had been published in the peer-reviewed journal Mediterranean Marine Science. (The retraction notice says the paper was pulled “due to remaining uncertainty.”) My editor asked me to reach out to Leffer for the inside scoop.
“Babes. SHARKGATE CONTINUES,” I immediately wrote to my group chat of science writer friends, which includes Leffer. We’d been watching the shark drama unfold among scientists for weeks. Casey Crownhart at MIT Tech Review had kicked things off by sharing this tweet casting doubt on whether the goblin shark in the paper was really a shark. Leffer and freelancer Joanna Thompson both pitched the story; Leffer’s version ran first.
The shark in the paper, their work concluded, looked like a toy shark because it probably was a toy shark. Among the clues was a line on the alleged shark that looked just like the seam of a specific shark toy for sale on eBay.
The original authors maintain that the find was not a toy: “Even though we have every reason to assume that the finding was authentic (several Mediterranean shark experts and [two] anonymous peer reviewers accepted and supported publication of this paper!), other colleagues caused a completely unethical controversy and claimed that the specimen was a discarded plastic figurine,” they told Thompson via email for her piece, which ran in the Daily Beast. They noted that since the original specimen wasn’t preserved, there is technically no way to prove whether the shark was plastic one way or the other.
I spoke with Leffer about goblin sharks and how news is made. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Meg Duff: What were some of the first indications that this shark in the paper was perhaps not a shark?
Lauren Leffer: My immediate thought when I looked at the picture was, “I don’t think that that is what sharks look like.” I mean, I’ve never seen a goblin shark in real life. I have seen pictures of goblin sharks because I’m a freak who looks at lots of pictures of animals on the internet.
But also, I worked in the Smithsonian, so I’ve seen a lot of jarred fish specimens. And I’ve never seen a dead fish that had rigid, sticky-outy flippers. I looked at the photo and it looked like a bath toy, and I was like, “I wonder if other people agree.” Ultimately, the answer was yes.
I started by reaching out to the scientists who were tweeting about this online. I eventually found out there was a Facebook group full of shark scientists and ichthyologists and marine biologists who were discussing it. So I went through pretty obvious channels. I sent a lot of messages.
A lot of people were unwilling to go on the record. I think there were concerns that it could come off as bad-mouthing other scientists. I understood people’s concerns, but it still felt important to me to talk about how not every published piece of science is super credible.
Separately from that, plastics people were much more willing to tell me that the picture I sent them looked like a plastic object.
You talked to a lot of shark experts about this. What were some of the tells?
A lot of people pointed out the fins. People pointed out that the coloration looked odd. The thing that was supposed to be the mouth was protruding in an odd way that’s not really characteristic of goblin sharks.
Goblin sharks have five-gill slits. This “specimen” (in big air quotes) had four.
Also: Goblin sharks are big; they get 10-feet plus. This specimen that washed up on a Greek beach was supposedly a baby shark. The scientists who published it said it was under 80 centimeters, which is very vague—usually that’s not how species records are described.
Eventually they were like, “Well, it was probably maybe 15 centimeters,” which is just straight up smaller than anyone would expect a juvenile goblin shark to be. At some point the study authors claimed it was an embryo.
I talked to some shark experts who told me that even an embryo that size wouldn’t be viable. It certainly wouldn’t look as complete. Shark embryos aren’t just tiny sharks—they don’t have all the bits. They look weird … extra mushy even.
Extra mushy! So you also talked to plastics researchers. What did they say?
Joana Sipe at Duke pointed out that in the picture, the specimen appears to be covered in flecks of sand. But she was like, “That could easily just be flecks of weathered plastic coloring.” And also, there was this floppiness to the shark nose—it’s called the rostrum—and she was like, “Yeah, that looks like plastic kind of being melted in the sun.”
Skepticism about this paper has been sloshing around since last year, but it was only officially retracted after your story came out. How did the suspicion around the paper start?
I think it really only came to the attention of scientists because of Jürgen Pollerspöck. He’s this independent shark researcher who runs a site called Shark References, which is a compendium of shark research. Anything you might want to know about sharks you can find on Shark References.
He had gone to add this particular species report—as one does when they’re a very enthusiastic independent shark researcher—and it looked, to his eye, pretty weird. He started getting feedback, and eventually was compelled to research and submit this skeptical comment in November.
All credit to Jürgen!
From there, other people picked up on it. I think, if anything, my article might have spurred the original researchers to realize that they were going to get public flak from the internet writ large. Maybe that sped things up a little, but I think no matter what, it was headed for retraction.
How does this leave you feeling about the peer review process or about the Twittersphere? What is the state of science in relation to this story?
I mean, I don’t know if I’m equipped to comment on the entire state of science. I’ll say that I previously worked in biology as a researcher and mistakes happen.
The scientific record is not perfect. A big part of what makes it good and intact is not just peer review, but continual feedback and conversations between scientists, both in lab meetings and then also in the academic record and through retractions.
Any final thoughts?
Goblin sharks are super cool! They live in the deep ocean. They’re super widely distributed, although maybe not in the Mediterranean Sea.
And … people in academic science are under a lot of pressure to produce exciting research. I don’t necessarily think that is the best incentive system to make sure everything published is 100 percent accurate or always 100 percent done in good faith.
In this case, it could have been a goblin shark! It could have been a goblin shark that looked a whole lot like a plastic toy. We can’t know for sure. But what we can know is that the record didn’t contain enough information to be verifiable. If it did, it would have been a big deal.
I am so glad this story introduced me to goblin sharks. They are truly funny-looking fish.
Gizmodo featured them in a slideshow of fake-looking animals in 2014 and it feels like it was a premonition. Sometimes they look fake because they have a million wild teeth and scary pointy noses … and sometimes they look fake because they’re a plastic toy.