The not so ferocious horn shark

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Horn sharks use the two horns on their back to defend it from predators.

Courtesy of Heal the Bay

The small horn shark, which lives along the coast of Central California down to the Gulf of California in Mexico, is much different from the ferocious sharks portrayed in the movies. Only growing to about three and a half feet in size, this bottom-dwelling shark is most often found swimming along the ocean floor trying to stay invisible to predators.

Horn sharks have a sandy colored camouflage to keep them well hidden from predators, but their best defense is the two horns on their back. When attacked, the shark’s sharp horns stab painfully into the roof of the potential predator’s mouth. The horn shark’s most unusual predator is the bald eagle, which occasionally feasts upon horn sharks in the shallow water off the coast of Catalina Island.

While many shark species must stay in constant motion to breathe, the horn shark uses a distinct black opening, called a spiracle, to pump water over the gills and get oxygen without swimming. By using the spiracle, horn sharks can stay almost motionless on the bottom of the ocean floor.

Commonly named for the two sharp horns protruding from its back near the dorsal fins, its scientific name is Heterodontus, from the Greek “hetero” (different) and “dontus” (teeth). By using their sharp front teeth to snatch food, and the molar-like back teeth to crush hard-bodied prey, the horn shark feeds on crabs and sea urchins in addition to small fish and squid.

Horn sharks begin their breeding season in the next few months and the females will lay up to 18 unusually shaped eggs during February and April. The eggs are a greenish-brown, leathery material with a distinct spiral shape that allows them to be tucked into rocky crevices, hidden in kelp forests or even screwed into the sand on the ocean floor. After hatching within eight to 10 months, people may find the empty eggshells washed up on the beach, where they look like dried seaweed.

For a hands-on horn shark experience, come visit the touch tanks at Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. For more information, go to www.healthebay.org or call 800.HEAL.BAY.