Great white shark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent and how about …some shark words?
How about a shark-themed episode of “Words of the Week”?
Let’s start with sex. All things begin with that, you could say, and sharks make an intriguing case because they come into the world ready for business, all fins and sharp teeth and everything else a killer needs.
VIVIPAROUS. A lot of sharks practice regular old reproduction, or viviparous reproduction, which Webster’s Fourth defines as “bearing or bringing forth living young, as most mammals and some other animals do.” Included in that amorphous collection of “some other animals” are sharks like bulls, lemons sharks and Makos, just to name a few. Litters can be as big as 100 inaptly named shark pups; and, all in all, this is very ordinary.
Unlike people babies, the first thing young sharks do is make themselves scarce. Pups are small, plump and delicious, and shark mothers are notoriously unsentimental.
An extreme example of this lack of sentimentality can be observed in the class of OVOVIVIPAROUS (egg-laying) sharks that dabble in what is called APLACENTAL VIVIPARITY, in which eggs are laid — but kept inside the mother. This is interesting, but more so after the shark pups hatch. There being no placenta or food sources apart from other pups and unfertilized eggs, the young sharks are left to fend for themselves. Not surprisingly, only a few survive long enough to actually make it into the water. Sharks that do this include, not surprisingly, perhaps, great whites, tigers and my favorite, the cookiecutter, which we will get to in a moment.
Perhaps in reaction to this in utero “Lord of the Flies,” other sharks just stuff the eggs under a rock somewhere and skedaddle. This is not only a common mode of reproduction, but in the case of a female shark it also represents good strategy, i.e. keep teeth as far away from your kooch as possible.
Now. The COOKIECUTTER shark, Isistius brasiliensis, grows only to about 18 or 20 inches, but it makes up for this diminutive size by possessing several interesting characteristics. For one, it prefers to live in the deepest oceans, 100,000 feet or more down. That is way, way down there, and that means there is very little light. And so the second interesting thing about cookiecutters is that they glow. For real! The shark’s belly has a small, green bioluminescent patch, which scientists believe is like a lure to other animals.
Cookie-cutter bites from a cookiecutter shark! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Which brings us to the third and most interesting quality: its feeding style. The Cookiecutter ambushes its prey, usually, and then attaches its open mouth to whatever part of its victim it can grab by creating a vacuum with its lips, like it was sucking on a straw. Using its powerful jaws and sawlike, swiveling teeth, the cookiecutter then chops out circular hunks of meat as it goes along the fish — just like a cookie cutter! (Fun!)
Another interesting shark is the now-extinct MEGALODON. Not only does it have a cool name, let’s just go ahead and say it is the full-on granddaddy to our hero, the great white. Megalodons were far more cinematic, however; they grew, some say, to 100 feet long, with jaws as big as garage doors and teeth as big as human hands.
Speaking of body parts, let’s finish with some fun vocabulary words. A shark’s nose is known as the NARES. These are really just a pair of holes under the snout, and they are only used for smelling. Sharks have a terrific sense for it, though, and are said to be able to detect mere drops of blood from a quarter-mile away.
As if that was not enough, sharks also have twin networks of special sensors running along their bodies. The LATERALIS system detects vibrations in the water, which can lead sharks to distressed animals. And the AMPULLAE OF LORENZINI can detect changes in electricity in the water, which can also indicate prey but may serve as a guide to navigation.
A shark’s tongue, called a BASIHYAL, is especially peculiar. It has no taste buds; those are in the sides of a shark’s mouth. The basihyal is just a chunk of cartilage that seems useless in most sharks; but for cookiecutters, the basihyal is an integral part of their cookie-cutter eating style.
Sharks have lots of teeth, of course; and you could say they were covered in them. A shark’s hide is layered in PLACOID SCALES, also known as the sounds-like-it-plays-in-the-Catskills dermal denticles. These are a lot like regular teeth in structure, only smaller.