ibusinesslines.com November 15, 2018

'Vegetarian' shark discovery: First omnivorous species of sea predator stuns scientists

07 September 2018, 12:13 | Justin Tyler

'Vegetarian' shark discovery: First omnivorous species of sea predator stuns scientists

'Vegetarian' shark discovery: First omnivorous species of sea predator stuns scientists

Researchers say that makes the bonnethead the first known omnivorous shark.

The bonnethead shark has entered the history books after scientists proclaimed it to be the first known omnivorous shark - consuming, digesting and assimilating large quantities of seagrass as well as small fish and molluscs.

"Until now, most people thought that seagrass consumption was incidental when these sharks were hunting for crabs, etc. that live in the seagrass beds", Samantha Leigh, co-author of the work, told reporters. While some animals chomp up animal and plant indiscriminately, bonnethead sharks draw valuable nutrients from the seagrass, digesting it properly.

Researchers say the bonnethead shark - the smallest relative of the hammerhead - extract nutrients from gobbling up seagrass, a flowering plant found in shallow salt waters.

To test this theory, the findings of which are published in the Proceedings of Royal Society B, captive bonnethead sharks were fed a majority seagrass diet, with the results proving the fish were able to successfully digest it using stomach acids.

A new study reveals that the bonnethead shark (Sphyrna tiburo), a relatively small shark found in coastal waters around the U.S., is a flexitarian - meaning it has the ability to switch between a meat- and plant-based diet.

"Given that bonnetheads have a digestive system that resembles that of closely-related species that we know to be strict carnivores, we need to re-think what it means to have a "carnivorous gut", Leigh said. Some, like the bonnethead shark, prefer to munch on seagrass. What's more, the sharks also exhibited somatic (cellular) growth while on the plant-based diet, and they possessed the required biochemistry to break down even the toughest portions of the fibrous seagrass.

The animals were found to be as good at digesting fiber and organic matter as young green sea turtles - a species that transforms from eating an omnivorous diet in youth to committed vegetarianism in adulthood. The National Aquarium states that the sharks typically grow to a length of 30 to 48 inches and weight of up to 24 pounds. At the end of the three-week testing period, the team analyzed the sharks' fecal matter and digestive systems, ultimately concluding that the bonnetheads did, in fact, digest and absorb nutrients offered by the seagrass.

We show that a coastal shark, previously thought to be exclusively carnivorous, is digesting seagrass with at least moderate efficiency, which has ecological implications.[within] fragile seagrass ecosystems. "They produce oxygen, they create a nursery for many commercially important fish species, they filter toxins out of the water, and more".

But the findings suggest there "could be" other plant-eating sharks out there, said Leigh.

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