Elephant fish: the ghost shark that’s neither ghost nor shark

The Elephant Fish (Callorhinchus milii) is also known as ghost shark. This is due to its almost scaleless, silvery body with iridescent reflections that make it look like an apparition in the deep dark waters where it lives.

Elephant Fish (Callorhinchus milii)
Image by Ng Boon Ping

Truth is, the Elephant Fish is neither shark nor ghost. Here are some quirky facts about this equally strange-looking fish.

Chimaera, not shark

Typically found in waters up to 2,500m deep along the coasts of southern Australia and New Zealand, the Elephant Fish belongs to a family of ‘chimaera’, which are distant cousins of sharks, skates and stingrays. In fact, they branched off from sharks almost 400 million years ago.

Like sharks and rays, chimaeras have cartilaginous skeletons, and the males possess external reproductive organs (claspers) derived from the pelvic fins and used to introduce sperm into the body of the female.

Elephant Fish (Callorhinchus milii)

But unlike their distant cousins, chimaeras have a single external gill opening, covered by a flap on each side of the body, just like bony fishes.

Protruding snout, prey-crushing teeth

See that flexible trunk-like projection? It’s not a nose but a hunting tool that is highly sensitive to electrical fields and movements, and is used to probe for prey hidden in the sandy, muddy bottom of the sea.

Elephant Fish (Callorhinchus milii)
Image by Ng Boon Ping

It also has powerful plate-like teeth in both jaws which are designed for crushing and grinding bivalves such as clams, mussels and scallops. The ground up shells are then excreted from its body.

Spine for self-defense

To make up for its lack of size and fearsome jaws, the Elephant Fish has a spine located just ahead of its dorsal fin. It is not poisonous and used largely for self defense.

Elephant Fish (Callorhinchus milii)
Image by Ng Boon Ping

Oviparous, lays eggs in shallow water

Elephant Fish are one of the few deep sea species that come to the shallows to lay eggs. Each time, the female will lay two keratinous egg cases which may take up to 10 months to hatch.

An egg case of the Elephant Shark. Image Credit: Angela Heathcote. Source

S.E.A. Aquarium is one of the few aquariums in the world to feature this deep sea species. And with Spooky Seas happening now till 28 October 2018, there are interactive activities around the aquarium to help everyone, especially the kids, learn more about the Elephant Fish and other quirky sea creatures. Details here

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