Discovery through dissection

A chance to gain vital insight into a Critically Endangered shark species.

If you were asked to think of a Critically Endangered species; your mind may wander to the African black Rhino, Orangutan or the Amur Leopard… However, we have many species right here in Ireland that need our urgent help, including the Angelshark.

Angel and Shark are two words that many would not put in the same sentence, but it is in fact the name of a unique species of flat shark found across the East Atlantic and Mediterranean Sea, including a few remaining locations in Ireland.

The species name, Squatina squatina, and its many colloquial names such as Banjo Fish, Monkfish and Fiddle Fish all provide good imagery of its flattened body that is adapted to hiding in the sand ready to ambush its prey, which includes smaller fish species, molluscs and crustaceans.

Despite its unique name, this relatively unheard-of species is listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, and at high risk of extinction, if actions are not urgently taken to protect and reduce pressures on the species. 

Here in Ireland, the Angelshark is now restricted to a few remaining known locations, such as Tralee Bay. Angelsharks have various biological traits, like many other elasmobranch species (shark, skates and rays) that make them particularly susceptible to environmental pressures, such as a late maturity and slow reproductive rate.

Angelsharks are rarely encountered in Ireland, so when two were accidentally caught in the Irish Sea, the fisher who had never encountered the species before, knew to contact the Irish Elasmobranch Group (IEG). Unfortunately, the two sharks were deceased when they arrived on the boat, but thanks to the fisher calling so quickly, it allowed for the arrangement of a dispensation from the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority (SFPA) to land the individuals for scientific purposes. Angelsharks are a protected species, and so in normal circumstances landing is prohibited; any accidentally caught Angelsharks should be returned to the water alive following best practice handling guidance developed by the Angel Shark Project.

There is still a huge amount we do not fully know about Angelshark life history and ecology, which is vital to helping this species recover. As these individuals were landed for scientific purposes, we had an opportunity to collect important data on one of the rarest species of shark in Europe.  To do this, we organised a collaborative #CSIofTheSea examination, hosted by University College Dublin Veterinary Hospital (UCDVH), Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI), the IEG in collaboration with Project SIARC (Sharks inspiring action and research in communities) and the Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme (CSIP). The dissections followed a protocol developed by the Angel Shark Project, and included taking a host of body measurements, stomach contents, and various tissue samples. These will be sent for contaminant, stable isotope, and genetic analysis, to help to shed light on the Angelsharks biology and ecology.

The examination allowed for groups and individuals from all sectors to come together to identify next steps for Angelshark conservation and research in Ireland, and it was in resounding agreement that the attempts need to be collaborative. Incorporating not only state agencies, scientists and NGOs, but also the fishers and local fishing communities all around Ireland, who are integral to safeguarding this species for generations to come.

And so, it was with this at its very core, that the IEG is delighted to announce the launch of Angel Shark Project: Ireland, kindly funded by Shark Conservation Fund. This project aims to be a fisher led conservation project with broad sectoral support. As well as IEG, the project will be delivered in collaboration with Inland Fisheries Ireland, Zoological Society of London, Natural Resources Wales, Universidad de Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and LIB, Museum Koenig Bonn (Leibniz Institute for the Analysis of Biodiversity Change).

By working collaboratively with fishers and coastal communities, the project hopes to uncover the remaining critical habitats for Angelsharks,  identify ways to help them recover, and support local communities to be able to conserve these areas, and the many species that call them home, for the generations that follow.

A webpage will be launched shortly for anyone who would like to learn more about this species and project, but in the meantime visit the Angel Shark Project website at If you would like to contact us directly about the project, or if you have any information both past and present about Angelsharks around Ireland, then we would be delighted to hear from you at or via the Irish Elasmobranch Group Facebook page.

Images of the event:

Figure 1: Joanna Barker, Co-Founder & Co-Lead – Angel Shark Project by the UCD Veterinary school CT scanner

Figure 2: Teams from UCD veterinary school and CSIP collecting morphometric data from the individuals

Figure 3: Stakeholders, scientists and concerned parties from all over Ireland and the UK observing the dissection of the individuals in the UCD veterinary facility

Figure 4: Stakeholders, scientists and concerned parties from all over Ireland and the UK observing the dissection of the individuals in the UCD veterinary facility


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