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The Epaulette Shark
The word “epaulette”, meaning “shoulder ornament” highly characterizes the species with the presence of a large black spot located behind each pectoral fin or “shoulder” of the shark. Such spots are usually margined in white and are also known as ocelli. The remained of the shark’s body is tan in coloration, although this can vary in hue, and have dark brown spots which are significantly smaller than the ocelli. Juvenile epaulette sharks have light and dark bands which break up as the individual matures. The body is elongated and slender and only has an upper caudal lobe. This species can grow up to 107 cm, where the caudal peduncle accounts for approximately half of its body length. The snout of the shark is short and rounded with the presence of nasal barbells on the underside, used for locating food. The sharks’ dorsal fins which comprise of no spines had has paired paddle-like pectoral and pelvic fins (which can almost rotate 360 degrees!), used for maneuvering through corals and crevices. The epaulette shark has been documented to walk on exposed corals, enabled by the species ability to slow down respiratory processes!
The species are found in New Guinea, the northern and eastern bounders of Australia, and its southern extent down to Sydney. Epaulette Sharks prefer shallow waters, with a maximum depth range on around 50 m and are generally found in tidal pools and coral flats. The Capricorn and Bunker group within the great barrier reef are said to have large a population of the species.
Epaulette sharks feed primarily on crustaceans (mostly crabs) and polychaete worms, with small bony fish comprising of only a small proportion of their diet. This species are opportunistic feeders, turning over debris in tidal pools to reveal prey items with the aid of their nasal barbells and rounded snout!
The epaulette shark is listed as “Least Concern” globally under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. However, a sub-population of the species in New Guinea is listed as “Near Threatened”.
In Australian waters the species appear highly abundant. Although the species are caught in Australian waters as bycatch and are often collected for aquarium exhibits, the impact to the population as a whole is thought to be minimal. The New Guinea sub-population is exposed to a higher degree of anthropogenic impacts, with threats such as over-fishing, dynamite fishing and high pollutant impact leaving the species to be vulnerable and listed as near threatened.