Tiny shark that glows discovered in the deep ocean

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Scientists have discovered a shark that glows in the deep ocean and is so tiny that it might even fit in your hand.

Named Etmopterus benchleyi in honor of shark conservationist and “Jaws” author Peter Benchley, the jet-black lanternshark with glass-like teeth and emerald eyes was caught in 2010 as part of an expedition off the Central American coastline on the Pacific Ocean side.

With only eight specimens to go by, very little is known about this shark which spends most its time in the darkest parts of the ocean at depths ranging from 2,742 feet to as much as 4,734 feet. Scientists still don’t know what it eats, what threats it faces and even how widespread it is.

“It is probably living in an environment where it might, even though it is really small compared to other sharks, be one of the larger things there,” said Victoria Elena Vasquez, a grad student at the Pacific Shark Research Center in California and part of the team that made the discovery along with David Ebert of the center and Douglas Long of the California Academy of Sciences.

“We’re not totally sure what this one is eating but other lantersharks are eating smaller fish, crustaceans,” she said. “It’s likely that it’s eating the same things or something similar.“

But the scientists behind the discovery can say for sure this pint-sized shark wouldn’t send beach goers into a tizzy – as the famous great white shark did in “Jaws.”

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“I've seen a few reports alluding to how dangerous and scary this shark might be, which is pretty funny to me since the largest one we found (a full grown adult) was 515 mm long (20 inches) from head to tail,” Vasquez said.

The teeth of the newly discovered lanternshark, Etmopterus benchleyi.

The teeth of the newly discovered lanternshark, Etmopterus benchleyi. (Douglas Long)

“Since we don't have a lot of specimens we can't confirm if they grow larger, but since it lives in the deep sea, it would be too challenging for people to have a chance encounter in the water without a submersible,” she told FoxNews.com.  “So I just wanted to clarify that there is no danger to people with this new species.”

Although this shark has the characteristic glow of most lanternsharks, they believe it uses that skill much less – hence its common name, the Ninja Lanternshark. That name was suggested by several cousins of Vasquez ranging in ages 8 to 14 and inspired by its black appearance.

“The idea is that they would be stealthier than other lanternsharks,” Vasquez said, adding they found fewer of the photophores or dots that emit light on this species than on other lantersharks.

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“In a lot of the other lantersharks, these photophores are clustered in these really obvious black markings,” she said. “So, you can imagine how difficult it is to look for black markings on an already very black shark. But under a microscope, you can actually see the dots themselves. They were there. We just didn’t see any of these really obvious clusters that you see in other sharks.”

And like other lantersharks, the glowing isn’t so much a way to attract attention but is a “form of camouflage.”

“The term is called counter-illumination,” Vasquez said. “The way you can picture it is if you were on a boat and you looked down and you saw a silhouette of something. You didn’t know what it was but you saw a shadow in the water. The idea here is that these sharks are trying to glow just enough to eliminate that shadow.”

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The discovery of this shark is part of a growing trend, with new finds increasing in recent years. From 1970 to 1999, scientists only discovered nine new species of sharks and their relatives each year, Vasquez said. But from 2000 to 2009, those discoveries doubled to 18-a-year before declining of late to 14-a-year.

“A lot of this is happening because we’re getting to the deep sea a lot more,” she said. “As deep exploration increases whether that be through science or commercial fishermen, we’re discovering more of these animals.”