Greenland shark caught in Belize: How long do they live?

These weird looking sharks take everything slow. And this one was a long way from home… wasn’t it?

MINNEAPOLIS — It’s not every day you reel in a catch that could be hundreds of years old — especially when you’re not fishing for it at all.

Researchers recently tagged tiger sharks off the south coast of Belize as they tugged a strange creature to the surface. It had ancient-looking gray skin and tiny blue eyes. It wasn’t a tiger shark, that’s for sure.

Florida International University graduate student Devanshi Kasana recorded a video and sent it to her advisor, Dr. Demian Chapman.

“As soon as I saw the video, I knew we were onto something incredible,” said Chapman, director of shark and ray conservation research at the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida.

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He recognized it as a sleeper shark, a slow-moving species that lives in deep, cold water. The most likely candidate? A Greenland shark believed to live for hundreds of years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says these sharks are the longest-living vertebrates on the planet, living at least 250 years… and maybe over 500 years. Sharks are generally long-lived, but Chapman said the lifespan for Greenland sharks is “on another planet.”

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“That’s amazing longevity — to live for centuries is really amazing,” he said.

This particular shark was between 10 and 12 feet long. Although its age could not be estimated, its size indicated that it was fully grown — and, Chapman said, probably “very old.”

A deep sea secret

Bowhead sharks are common in the Arctic, but you don’t expect them on a trip to the Caribbean.

“This is the first record of a sleeper shark in the western Caribbean,” the researchers wrote last month in a paper published in the journal Marine Biology.

So what was it doing there? Chapman said the catch supports a theory that bowhead sharks exist around the world — just deeper than we usually see.

“Obviously if you think about it, they like cold water, and cold water is everywhere. It’s only when you approach the equator that cold water is very, very deep.”

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It’s also a question that may remain unanswered for the foreseeable future — the team chose not to tag the shark to give it the best chance of survival.

“We have satellite tags that we can attach to one if we catch another, but it’s like saying, ‘Next time I win the lottery…'” Chapman said. “It’s such a rare find. It may be a long time before we have an answer.”

Life on the slow track

The sluggish creatures may benefit from something humans complain about: a slow metabolism. NOAA says the sharks’ top speed is less than 1.8 miles per hour, they age slowly, and may not reach sexual maturity until they are over 100 years old.

Such slow living could be an adaptation to the frigid waters that bowhead sharks call home.

Sharks used to be hunted for cod liver oil, but now they mostly end up accidentally in fishing nets. They can dive to depths of 6,500 feet and are the only sharks that can handle the cool Arctic Ocean year-round. Greenland shark caught in Belize: How long do they live?

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