September 14, 2005

The Real Jaguar Shark

An expedition in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico turns up a beast previously unique to Wes Anderson's mind.

David Goldenberg

In The Life Aquatic, Captain Steve Zissou, played by Bill Murray, is obsessed with finding the mythical jaguar shark (Wikipedia), a huge, bioluminescent beast previously unknown to science. After the shark eats his partner, Estaban, Zissou says that his quest is no longer about research, but revenge. At the end of the movie, though, the shark swims by Zissou's submersible, and instead of feeling hatred for the beast, Zissou is transfixed by its strange beauty.

Jaguar Shark
Courtesy Justin Kohn
The puppet used in the film.
Mikhail Matz, a professor of marine biology at the University of Florida, felt similarly when he happened upon his own jaguar shark in the Gulf of Mexico, a few days before Hurricane Katrina blew through. In a giddy entry for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Ocean Explorer series, Matz describes how he came across the first fluorescent shark ever caught on film.

I wanted to check out the mud flat between the rock outcrops, hoping to stumble upon a tube anemone or the fluorescent fish called shortnose greeneye (both finds of Deep Scope 2004 expedition). Hugo turns the sub around and... there it is, gracefully swimming a few inches off the bottom in the blue light, all in bright glowing yellow spots ... my Jaguar Shark! Camera! Zoom! Focus! Noooo! This is the WRONG joystick! Focus!!! YOU'LL LOSE IT! But the shark stops swimming and just sits there on the bottom, posing in our blue beam. Wow... It is not more than a meter long, with a fine black chain-like pattern on the bright glowing yellow background—in fact, much more elegant and beautiful than the monster in the "Life Aquatic" movie.

As it turns out, Matz's shark has been previously described by science; it's a chain catshark. It's just that no one has ever looked at it under a blue light before. "Nobody ever realized it was fluorescent," Matz tells Gelf. Matz would know. He is one of the few scientists to regularly go on deep submersible trips, and his group is the only one that focuses on fluorescence and bioluminescence. On a previous trip, group member Charlie Mazel first saw the glowing shark, but was unable to capture it on camera.

Chain Catshark
Courtesy NOAA
The world's only real glowing shark.
Matz mainly focuses on coral reefs—the "most fluorescent structures ever," he claims—though he is also interested in the basis and function of fluorescent structures in other marine animals. (To clear things up: Bioluminescence occurs when animals create their own light sources; fluorescence is when animals reflects light in certain patterns.) As for the catshark, Matz is stumped by its fluorescent properties. "The purpose is totally unclear," Matz says. "The hypothesis is that this is simply a conservation of something not related to survival capabilities. Just leftover chemistry or something. It could be for mate recognition, but there is no data, so we have to assume the most boring reason."

Matz's next expedition will likely occur next year in the Bahamas, when Operation Deep Scope takes advantage of the steep walls off the reefs to see how fluorescence is distributed on the way down to the bottom of the ocean. It may also be the next time Matz sees his jaguar sharks, which he believes range out into the Atlantic.

In the meantime, though, Matz will carry on his research in the lab, going through pictures and specimens collected during the most recent voyage. And in his spare time, he can watch The Life Aquatic. "It's either something marine biologists love or they hate," says Matz of the movie. "But just because it's complete total bullshit does not diminish how cool it is."

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