By: John Lester
Published: Jul 3, 2021

Cookiecutter Shark Human Attack

Researchers provide more details on the first cookiecutter shark attack on a live human, a concern as warm summer waters attract more people to the ocean. The study was co-authored by University of Florida researchers. It will be published in Pacific Science this month.

The sharks feed near the surface at night, meaning daytime swimmers are less likely to encounter them. The species is small, with adults reaching about 2 feet, but their unique jaws specialize in scooping out a piece of flesh, leaving victims with a crater-like wound.

“Not only is it painful, but it presents a difficult circumstance for recovery in the sense that there has to be plastic surgery to close the wound and you have permanent tissue loss,” said co-author George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File housed at the Florida Museum of Natural History on the UF campus. “It’s not as scary as ‘Jaws,’ but it’s very different from any other kind of attack we have in the International Shark Attack File because of the size of the shark and the modus operandi.”

The March 16, 2009, incident involved a cookiecutter shark, Isistius brasiliensis, repeatedly attacking a long-distance swimmer attempting to cross the Alenuihaha Channel from Hawaii to Maui.

After sunset, the victim said the first bite on his chest felt “like a pin prick.” He then was bitten on the left calf while climbing into the rescue kayak following him during the swim. The International Shark Attack File lists two other incidents involving cookiecutters, both judged to be inflicted post-mortem.

Unlike other sharks, a cookiecutter’s teeth are connected at the bottom in the lower jaw. When feeding, the shark bites its victim and then rotates to remove a plug of flesh, “kind of like using a melon-baller,” Burgess said.

“They have the biggest teeth of any shark in relation to the size of their jaws,” he said. “They look like the cartoon sharks you see with oversized teeth.”

The victim also reported seeing squid before the attack. Like squid, cookiecutters are bioluminescent, producing their own light on parts of their bodies. Researchers believe the sharks may use this specialization to hide among squid while larger fish, such as tuna, prey on the squid.


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