Why are goblin sharks called that?

By: Cristen Conger  | 
A life size model of the rare goblin shark at the Natural History Museum in Vienna.
Peter Halasz

Key Takeaways

  • Goblin sharks are considered living fossils, with their species dating back over 100 million years and having changed little since then.
  • They have unique features like a flat snout with sense organs that can detect electric fields and a retractable jaw for catching prey.
  • Their large, oily liver helps them float near neutral buoyancy, allowing them to sneak up on prey with minimal movement.

There are a lot of things about goblin sharks that scientists don't know. But one thing is undeniable -- goblin sharks are not attractive. Although you'd be hard-pressed to find a person who adores the visage of any shark, goblin sharks stand out as the ugly ducklings of the family.

The scientific name of the species is Mitsukurina owstoni, but its memorable mug earned the goblin shark its common name. Aside from its superficial traits, there is little else "goblin" about this fish. Unlike their more predatory cousins, goblin sharks pose little threat to humans and generally swim at levels too deep for human contact.


So what is it about goblin sharks that repels? Beady eyes, an enormously flat snout and retractable jaws design a bizarre face you might see in a Picasso painting. The elongated nose in particular creates a strange facial proportion as though the mouth forgot to catch up with it. Three rows of around 25 crooked needlelike teeth line the tops and bottoms of its gums [source: Florida Museum of Natural History]. Its jaws also sit strangely on its face because of a double set of ligaments that let goblin shark extend and retract them for feeding purposes.

Goblin sharks are often called the ugliest shark species because of their elongated snout.
Peter Halasz

The rest of a goblin shark's body is flabby with transparent pinkish skin from the blood vessels that shine through. Averaging around 12 feet (3.6 meters) long, goblin sharks are hefty creatures, weighing in at about 400 pounds (181 kilograms) [source: Florida Museum of Natural History]. They live along outer continental shelves and seamounts (mountains rising from the sea floor) rather than in open waters. But since the first recorded sighting in 1898, only 50 or so goblin sharks have been caught around Japan, Portugal, the Gulf of Mexico and the California coast.

Despite existing in modern scientific history for little more than a century, the goblin shark species has been around much longer. And it just may be its unpleasant face that brought it through multiple millennia.


Blast from the Past: Living Fossils

Goblin shark body structure

When the goblin shark species was first discovered off the coast of Japan in 1898, it set off a case of scientific déjà vu. Researchers realized that they had seen goblin sharks before -- not swimming in the seas, but in fossil remains. Shark fossils from the Scapanorhynchus species dating back more than 100 million years bore striking resemblance to the goblin shark [source: Bright]. Since the species was thought to be extinct, goblin sharks are now classified as living fossils.

A comparison between the current incarnation and fossils also revealed that little about the fish has changed over time. Despite its ugliness, the goblin shark's body structure seems to have been perfected for survival.


For starters, its flat snout is lined with openings called ampullae of Lorenzini that serve as electrical sensors that track down food. Sharks have a unique sense called electroreception. Ampullae pick up weak electrical impulses living fish and animals give off whenever a muscle contracts. This built-in homing device allows goblin sharks to seek out food. Once it's tracked down a meal, the goblin shark's retractable jaw provides the quick-draw action to snatch up food.

In spite of the goblin shark's large size, it can sneak up on prey effectively thanks to its liver (of all things). In relation to body size, the goblin shark's oily liver takes up enough room on its insides to make it almost as dense as water. Since it floats so easily, the fish requires little movement to get around, and it can discretely float up to its desired food source.

Research conducted on the small number of goblin sharks that have come out of the water suggest that their main food sources include fish, shrimp and squid [source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations]. Deciphering more concrete dietary information has been a challenge since many of the goblin sharks examined have empty stomachs. For example, in one large-scale study on goblin sharks performed in 2006, 29 percent of the 148 individual fish studied had no food inside of them [source: Yano et al].

The last goblin shark sighting occurred in 2007 in Tokyo Bay, Japan [source: Mehta]. After one day in captivity, the living fossil fish died. Since opportunities like that one are few and far between, it may be a long time before we decode all the mysteries of the goblin shark. For more shark-related information, visit the links on the next page.


Frequently Asked Questions

How long do goblin sharks typically live?
Goblin sharks are believed to have a lifespan of around 30 years, but exact information is limited due to the rarity of sightings.
Where are goblin sharks most commonly found?
Goblin sharks are most commonly found in deep waters off the coasts of Japan, although they have been spotted in other oceans globally.

Lots More Information

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More Great Links


  • Bright, Michael. "The Private Life of the Sharks: The Truth Behind the Myth." Stackpole Books. 2000. (May 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=w31fF5IlqdoC
  • Carwadine, Mark. "Shark." Firefly Books. 2004. (May 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=Qh44RNa5yh0C
  • Ebert, David A. "Sharks, Rays and Chimaeras of California." University of California Press. 2003. (May 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=1SjtuAs702kC
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. "Mitsukurina owstoni." Fisheries and Aquaculture Department. 2001. (May 14, 2008)http://www.fao.org/fishery/species/13494
  • Jordan, Vanessa. "Goblin Shark." Florida Museum of Natural History Ichthyology Department. (May 14, 2008)http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/FISH/Gallery/Descript/GoblinShark/GoblinShark.html
  • Krock, Lexi. "Other Fish in the Sea." NOVA Online. January 2003. (May 14, 2008)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/fish/other.html
  • Mehta, Aalok. "Rare 'Prehistoric' Goblin Shark Caught in Japan." National Geographic. Feb. 9, 2007. (May 14, 2008)http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/02/070209-goblin-shark.html
  • ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research. "Biology of the Goblin Shark." Biology of Sharks and Rays. (May 14, 2008)http://elasmo-research.org/education/shark_profiles/m_owstoni.htm
  • Yano, Kazunari; Miya, Masaki; Aizawa, Masahiro; Noichi, Tetsuhisa. "Some aspects of the biology of the goblin shark, Mitsukurina owstoni, collected from the Tokyo Submarine Canyon and adjacent waters, Japan." Ichthyological Research. May 22, 2007. (May 14, 2008)http://www.springerlink.com/content/p430623g30188246/fulltext.pdf