On Monday, my advisor informed me that there was a white shark that had washed ashore on Wrightsville Beach and wondered whether I had any interest in driving down and collecting it. Although I was rightfully skeptical due to having an experience of driving 2 hours to collect a shark that was no longer there during my Masters at Stony Brook, I couldn’t help but get excited. I immediately called the number he gave me and followed the telephone chain that had brought the message to me, but by the time I was speaking to somebody in the immediate vicinity, I was told the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) had already collected the shark. I would soon find out this was probably for the best, but my immediate reaction was that another one had slipped through my fingers. Nonetheless, I was hopeful to be able to lay eyes on the specimen, being a UNCW alumni I felt that I at least had a shot at it.
I was fairly busy that day so my attention quickly turned back to the work at hand. By the end of the day however, through word of mouth, I had gathered that the necropsy would be held the following day at 1pm and that my former Ichthyology professor, Dr. Thomas Lankford, was one of the people involved in directing this event. I immediately began using every means of communication I could think of (phone, text, email) in order to try to get through to Dr. Lankford to get a spot at the necropsy. I would soon find out this wasn’t necessary as it would be open to the public, but my efforts would provide me a more “insider” perspective. By 8:45pm I had secured my spot as well as a ride, thanks to Chuck Bangley from East Carolina University (ECU).
Chuck and a fellow ECU undergraduate DJ Evans picked me up the morning of the necropsy and we made the 2 hour drive down to Wilmington. We arrived with a few minutes to spare and as we pulled into the parking lot, I saw a crowd of students and reporters around a building, which I immediately knew would be where we were heading. We made our way towards the Oriole Burevitch Laboratory and as we turned the corner beside Friday Hall, we knew we were heading in the right direction by the fresh scent of dead shark and the student walking the other direction with a look of distaste on her face. Another student pointed us towards the building, where we saw the shark being lifted in with a crane. Immediately I realized the scale of the shark I was about to see was one I had not had the opportunity to work with yet.
We quickly pushed our way through the crowd of almost 100 students and found Dr. Lankford, who directed us inside the building. While the UNCW marine mammal crowd, headed up by William McLellan (WAM), prepared for the necropsy, I did my best to jockey for a good vantage point. I immediately noticed that the shark had been damaged, particularly on its underside. Some would speculate that the pectoral fin might have been cut off, but Dr. Lankford felt it was most likely bitten off after the animal had been deceased. Both Dr. Lankford and WAM (pictured to the right – Dr. Lankford with a white baseball cap and WAM with a darker hat behind him) seemed to waste no time, immediately getting to work cutting into the animal.
The anatomy of a shark was familiar to me as I had some experience running dogfish dissections as a High School teacher, but as I mentioned before the scale was unfamiliar. Seeing the size of the liver that kept this animal afloat really made you appreciate just how massive it was. As the liver was removed the digestive tract became visible, which we were told by WAM had something of substance inside of it. It was sometime around this point when one of the faculty told his child to have a look inside the body of a white shark, he might not get another opportunity in his lifetime to do this, which I realized was probably true for all of us. The intestines were quickly cleared out of the way in order to move on to other parts of the body, but we knew that we would eventually get a chance to see what was in the stomach.
The next area that was explored was the gill arches, which revealed some parasites, but these were not considered to be unusual and probably did not lead to the death of the animal. As WAM continually cut away at the animal, more organs were revealed, one of the most notable being the heart, which caused quite a lot of excitement for the marine mammal crowd, who were not used to seeing so many valves on a heart. About this time, somebody dropped one of the fins right in front of me. The clean cut on this fin reinforced the idea that the missing pectoral fin was not cut off, but actually bitten off as Dr. Lankford had hypothesized.
Now the white shark really began to be reduced into pieces as the vertebral column began to be cut into sections and cleaned off. This is when Dr. Lankford asked if I would like to have an opportunity to participate, which I took, seen right (photo credit: DJ Evans). Little by little, all of the vertebrae were cleaned of any flesh and the finished product was lined up with the head of the shark for an incredible photo-op. The head was then cleaned off, with jokes being made about the shark receiving dental services, which I think also provided quite the photo-op. This was the view of the shark that reminded me of what an incredible predator it must have been before whatever tragedy befell it occurred.
On that note, we return to the question most of us couldn’t wait to have answered, “What was in the shark’s stomach?” The table got extremely crowded again as the digestive and reproductive tract re-emerged. As the stomach was being cut into, I was eventually able to get a view of the digested remains. At first they were indiscernible to me, but as the bones were cleared from the rest of the digested tissue, it quickly became apparent that we were dealing with a large bony fish. The presence of
pharyngeal teeth led Dr. Lankford to hypothesize that it had eaten a large black drum. While going through the bones, DJ recognized two circular pieces as otoliths. They were too large for anybody else to recognize as such and were almost thrown out!
When examining the esophagus, WAM noticed some lesions, which he had seen in pilot whales he had necropsied. While indicative of trauma, he did not feel these were significant enough to cause mortality. Finally, the spiral valve was opened up, which proved to be an interesting sight. These organs are used to increase the surface area of the shark’s relatively short digestive tract to allow for increased nutrient
While the cause of death could not be determined from the necropsy, UNCW researchers thought it would be interesting to look at environmental variables that might have caused the animal distress. The vertebrae and tissues would be sent off for further analysis to help better our understanding of these elusive and mysterious apex predators. Leaving the necropsy I was left with a sense of amazement at how no part of the shark was simply tossed away and each part served to teach not only the students present, but also the faculty present and the researchers receiving samples, about the white shark that washed ashore in our neck of the woods.