- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 4, 2004

VIENNA, Austria — A new species of “furry” shark that hops like a frog rather than swims has been discovered in the unprepossessing habitat of a German aquarium.

The 28-inch female shark, nicknamed Cuddles, is covered in hairy bristles, has big nostrils and an extra gill that set her apart from the 405 known shark species.

According to the dozens of marine biologists who have flocked to inspect Cuddles, her fins are smaller but more muscular than those found on similar-sized sharks. She claps them together in order to hop across the bottom of her tank in the Sea Star aquarium in Coburg, Germany.

“She leaps over the seabed like a frog, rather than swimming gracefully like most sharks,” said Peter Faltermeer, a marine biologist and the aquarium’s curator.

Scientists, he said, were confounded. “They were all left totally baffled, and we were left delighted,” Mr. Faltermeer said. “They couldn’t classify her. Cuddles is unique, and she belongs to us.”

The shark’s former home, an Austrian zoo, gave her to the aquarium, not realizing her rarity. Earlier she had been kept in a Vienna pet shop whose owner does not remember where she came from. The Sea Star is now in the process of choosing a Latin and English name for the newfound species.

“This is the first time a totally new species of shark has been found not in the wild, but in a fish tank,” Mr. Faltermeer said. “It is amazing.”

Because Cuddles does not have sensory organs at the front of the head, as do other sharks, he believes she uses the bristles that cover her from head to tail to provide an early warning of possible predators, or prey.

“She lets algae grow without trying to rub it off, which is gradually turning the bristles bright red,” Mr. Faltermeer said. “We believe the bristles pick up movements in the water, and the algae helps to thicken the bristles and lengthen them.”

Unlike other sharks, the irises of Cuddles’ eyes are fixed open. She also has abnormally wide nostrils and a filter for plankton. “Other sharks filter plankton, but these don’t also chase fish,” he said. “But Cuddles has a full set of teeth and the main ones are extraordinarily long.

“She seems to eat anything. We’ve tried squid, red bass, krill and trout, and she eats it all. She also has an enormously strong bite for her size. She can bite through things other sharks would have problems with.”

He believes the shark has adapted to living and hunting in the dark — probably in a cave rather than in deep water. Most of the biologists believe Cuddles came from somewhere around southern Africa.

“The eyes that are not designed to cope with light, the all-body hair, the wide nostrils and the way she uses her fins more like legs all indicate she is used to a dark cave environment,” he said.

“Caves often have rich sources of plankton, which might suggest why her body has undergone such adaptations.”

While the shark is now a popular sight at the Sea Star aquarium, it has taken many years for her unique qualities to be recognized. Spokesman Ekkehard Wolf at the Schonbrunn Zoo in Vienna said the zoo had kept Cuddles in a tank for two years without putting her on public display.

Before the zoo took her in, Cuddles had been held at an animal rescue center, which took her in after the center in which she’d been on display shut after it was flooded.

The owner of the center apparently bought the shark from a pet shop, whose owner said he couldn’t remember where a single baby shark had come from four years earlier.

Mr. Faltermeer said: “The Austrian zoo experts should not feel too bad. Where they kept her, you could only see her from above. To be honest, when I first saw her when she was delivered, I thought she was an ordinary nurse shark. It was only when we got her in the aquarium and saw her from the side that we realized she was special.”

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