CHARLESTON, S.C. — South Carolina scientists have discovered 79 new species of sharks, though they look much like the ones already known to exist in the world’s oceans.
Scientists at the Hollings Marine Laboratory at Fort Johnson on Charleston Harbor found the new species by comparing DNA with existing sharks.
Biologist Gavin Naylor said most of the new species are “cryptic” ones, which means they are much the same as existing sharks except that their DNA does not match exactly.
Naylor, a biologist who works for the College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina, said the studies of genetic sequencing might provide clues as to how organisms evolve.
More than 1,200 species of sharks and rays are known to inhabit the oceans. There are nearly 40 known species off South Carolina’s coast.
Naylor said continued DNA testing will turn up other new species.
“We’re pretty sure there are a lot more out there,” he said.
“We’re just a bunch of nerdy scientists doing the best we can. I’m pretty sure we have barely scratched the surface.”
Researcher Chenhong Li has developed a method that makes searching for new shark species more efficient. It allows genes to stick to molecules so they can be isolated. The technique could allow genetic coding to be compared among as many as 1,200 genes of 100 different specimens at a time.
“We used to do it one gene by one gene,” Li said.
Scientists say the research could have applications in genetic medicine and other fields. They are researching sharks because they are the oldest invertebrates that, like humans, have jaws.
More species of sharks does not mean more shark bites. Only five species are likely to bite humans.
“The incidence of interaction between sharks and humans is not going to change,” Naylor said. “Nothing’s changed, just our knowledge.”