K's Kreature Feature is an educational presentation at our monthly general staff meetings here at the Two Oceans Aquarium, but it’s only right that we extend the knowledge and fun to our readers here on our website. Every month Education Operations Co-ordinator Katja Laingui presents a different animal that we have here at the Aquarium and tells our colleagues more about it. Usually she uncovers some rather interesting facts about the various animals she researches. She also makes sure to entertain her co-workers …

The puffadder shyshark is definitely in the running for title of "cutest shark species".

Puffadder shyshark. Photo courtesy Graeme Kruger/Flickr (under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

We have quite a few of them in the building. Our visitors can spot them in the Atlantic Ocean Gallery and many, many school children get to experience this animal in one of our two Discovery Centres.

The term “shyshark” comes from the fact that they curl themselves up with their tail fin on top of their head, which we humans interpret as shyness. For them it is a defence mechanism.

Photo courtesy www.duiops.net

This benthic (which means it lives on the sea bed) shark is endemic to the coast of South Africa, and has three other shyshark buddies in its genus Haploblepharus: The brown shyshark, the Natal shyshark and the dark shyshark. With the exception of the dark shyshark, which can be found all the way up in Namibian waters, the rest of the Haploblepharuses are endemic to South Africa.

Dark shyshark at the Two Oceans Aquarium. Photo courtesy Stefan Hurter

One of the things that I always find fascinating about any animal is how they got their name, and who did the naming. Let’s start with the who. The first-ever mention of the puffadder shyshark was by George Edwards in 1760. He had caught three specimens of puffadder shysharks at the Cape of Good Hope and so was the first to describe the animal. He was also the first to draw the shark.

The first drawing of a puffadder shyshark. Public domain
George Edwards. Public domain

George Edwards was a naturalist and called the “Father of British Ornithology”. He looked exactly like what you’d imagine a European man of standing would look like in the 1760s. George, however, was not the one to describe the puffadder shyshark. The animal was named after him, since he was the first to discover it, but Heinrich Rudolf Schinz was the one to name the puffadder shyshark Haploblepharus edwardsii in 1822. The Swiss Schinz was a naturalist as well as a physician.

In Greek, Haploblepharus means “single eyelid”. This is extremely descriptive, since, like most sharks, the puffadder shyshark has what is called a nictating membrane. This is a protective “third eyelid” which can be used to cover the eye for protection. Apart from sharks, some reptiles and birds also have a nictating membrane. Even some mammals, such as polar bears, seals and aardvarks, have full nictating membranes.

Puffadder shyshark's nictating membrane. Photo courtesy Faan Rossouw

The common name of the puffadder shyshark comes from the fact that the pattern on this shark looks a lot like the patterns you would find on a puffadder snake, but that is where the similarities end. We like to call our puffadder shysharks “puffies” for short.

Puffadder snake. Photo couresty Michael Jefferies
/Flickr (under licence CC BY-NC 2.0)

The most interesting thing about their names, however, is that each of the four Haploblepharus shark species has a short name derived from their scientific names. The puffie, Haploblepharus edwardsii, is called “Happy Eddie” for short. The brown shyshark, Haploblepharus fuscus, is “Plain Happy”. The Natal shyshark, Haploblepharus kistnasamyi, is “Happy chappie” and, lastly, the dark shyshark, Haploblepharus pictus, is “Pretty Happy”. The dark shyshark has reasons to be “Pretty Happy”, as it is the only one of the four that has an IUCN Red List rating of Least Concern.

Couldn't resist! 

“Happy Eddie”, on the other hand, is Near Threatened. The reason why almost all of the shysharks are in trouble is because they often end up as bycatch of trawling fisheries. Local fishermen, who catch fish from the shore, are not too fond of them either because they tend to eat the bait off their hooks. They end up being killed, as they are seen as pests.

Photo by Thomas Peschak. Courtesy Save Our Seas magazine

These relatively small sharks grow to about 62cm when they have reached their full length. They only reach sexual maturity by about the age of seven and can live up to 22 years. The shyshark is an oviparous animal, which means it lays eggs. A chicken is also an oviparous animal. The sharks’ egg cases are often found on beaches, after the baby shark has hatched already, and are commonly referred to as mermaid’s purses. We have our very own mermaid’s purse display at the Aquarium, and if you look closely you can see the little sharks wriggling around in their egg cases.


A post shared by Margot Jefferson (@margotjefferson) on

It takes them up to nine months to hatch and they feed off a yolk sac while they grow.

Amazingly, puffadder shysharks are among the many creatures of the deep that glow in the dark (under fluorescent light).  

Photo © Mike Markovina

Come and say hi to our Happy Eddies and our Pretty Happies. Maybe you can spot the nictating membrane or the babies in their egg cases!

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