By Michael Staudt
Most new species discovered now are insects or microorganisms, often in the rich rainforest interiors. It came as a surprise, then, when a new species of hammerhead shark was discovered off the coast of Belize. On February 15th 2017, Belize Fishery departments stated that a previously unknown shark was found.
Demian Chapman, a graduate from Florida International University, had been conducting studies on the ecosystem off the coast of Belize. Fittingly enough, the scientist specializes in the identification of sharks. Dr. Chapman had been observing the migration patterns of hammerhead sharks when he discovered the specimen.
The currently unnamed species was found after Dr. Chapman’s team sequenced DNA from several sharks. The goal of their project — to survey shark populations in Belize — was derailed by this discovery, which brought the fairly mundane project to the forefront of the marine science community. Debate has already begun over how different the new species really is from previously identified groups in the area.
The biological team was shocked to find a new species in such a region. The sharks in this area were previously thought to be bonnethead sharks, but the new species is a slightly different variant. This has raised some conservation concerns.
“The discovery that there might actually be two species with smaller distributional ranges and overall numbers means scientists must reassess each of their extinction vulnerabilities,” wrote a Florida International University specialist.
In other words, the narrow habitats of the sharks makes them vulnerable to small environmental changes. Between pollution and rising sea levels, this changes could occur quite rapidly over the next several decades. Some have also raised concerns that there are even more species similar to these two that are not being adequately protected, since scientists may be unaware of these populations of sharks.
Several organizations in Belize have asked their prime minister to secure the region as a World Heritage site. This protection would make the site less likely to suffer from human interference and possible preserve the new, fragile species. Other countries have supported this act to protect the shark habitat as well.