Updated: Jul 26
Taxonomy is a branch of science which classifies different organisms and studies their relationships to each other. This allows us to look back across evolutionary time to figure out when different species of animals had a common ancestor, and when and how they have adapted. Sharks have been evolving for 420 million years and thousands of species have arisen and gone extinct in that time, but what types of sharks are alive today and how are they related?
Evolution is driven by random mutations (changes in the genetic code), which confer differences in morphology. If the mutation makes the organism more well adapted to its environment, it is likely that the change will prevail. However, if the mutation makes the animal poorly adapted, it will likely die and the genetic change will die with it.
When taxonomists build "phylogenetic trees" (a diagram which depicts the lines of evolutionary descent of different species) the goal is to divide species (or groups of species) into increasingly small groups based upon similarities in morphology or genetics. The idea is to create a "parsimonious" tree, whereby the minimal amount of divisions are made. This is because we must assume the most simple explanation is probably right. If we build a phylogenetic tree which requires 1,000 different mutations to be true, but we also build another which only requires 100 mutations, it is more likely that the simpler tree, with fewer changes is more close to the truth. What this means is, when you look at a phylogenetic tree, species positioned on arms nearer to each other are more closely related and probably have more similarities (Stein et al, 2018).
Today, extant sharks are divided into 9 orders: 1. the ground sharks (Carcharhiniformes), 2. the bramble sharks (Echinorhiniformes), 3. the bullhead sharks (Heterodontiformes), 4. the frilled and cow sharks (Hexanchiformes), 5. the mackerel sharks (Lamniformes), 6. the carpet sharks (Orectolobiformes), 7. the dogfish (Squaliformes), 8. angel sharks (Squatiniformes), and 9. the sawsharks (Pristiophoriformes) (Compagno, 2001).
The angel sharks, dogfish and sawsharks are thought to be more closely related to each other compared to the ground sharks, mackerel sharks, and frilled and cow sharks, as they do not have an anal fin (Stein et al, 2018).
In the past, scientists organised sharks into only 8 orders. However, more recent DNA analysis has revealed that the bramble shark (Echinorhinus brucus) and prickly shark (Echinorhinus cookei) should be seperated into an order all of their own. We now think they might actually be more cloesly related to the angel sharks and the sawsharks, than to the dogfish, where they were oiginally placed (Stein et al, 2018).
The dogfish sharks have no anal fin, but they do have two dorsal fins which often have spines on them. They have a "nictating membrane" over the eye and 5-7 gill slits. The Squaliformes are very diverse in terms of their size; ranging from 1 metre dogfish like (Squalus acanthias) to the 7 metre long Greenland shark (Somniosus microcephalus) (Compagno, 2002).
This order includes many species of deep-sea sharks, some of which have evolved to glow in the dark. To learn more, you can check out Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Shark.
Angel sharks are particularly distinctive as their dorso-ventrally flattened body makes them look a bit like a ray. Yet, angel sharks are indeed true sharks. They have a broadened, muscular tail like other sharks and have no anal fin. They have five gill slits, two "dorsal fins", and large "pelvic" and "pectoral fins". Their eyes and "spiracles" are positioned on the underside of the body. Whilst many sharks have an asymmetrical "caudal fin", the angel sharks are unique because the lower lobe of their tail is larger than the upper. This gives them extra lift to launch off the seafloor when they ambush their prey (Compagno, 2002).
The saw sharks can be easily distinguished from all other sharks, thanks to their elongated snout (aka "rostrum"), with alternating large and small "rostral teeth". They have two dorsal fins, fiive to sixgill slits and sensory "barbels" hanging down from their snout, which allow them to detect prey. This is a small order, including only eight species (Compagno, 2002).
These sharks are commonly mistaken for sawfish, which are quite similar. Yet sawfish, whilst looking more like a true shark than sawsharks do, is actually a type of ray. To learn how to tell them apart through Sawfish or Sawshark?
This very small order of sharks, only including nine species. The bullhead sharks are so named for their broad, elaborate brows around bulbous eyes. They are separated from the other orders with an anal fin, by the presence of spines on their two dorsal fins. This is an example of "convergent evolution", as these sharks are not closely related to dogfish, but both orders have developed dorsal spines for defence (Compagno, 2002).
These sharks are commonly called the carpet sharks, due to the beautiful patterns of pigmentation on their skin. Sharks in this order have five gill slits, two spineless dorsal fins and a small mouth that does not extend past the eyes. Many species also have sensory barbels (Compagno, 2002).
Whilst they do look quite similar, the mackerel sharks can be distinguished from the Carcharhiniformes, as they do not have nictating eyelids and they can be separated from the Orectolobiformes because their mouth extends behind the eyes (Compagno, 2002).
Sharks in this order have two dorsal fins and five gill slits. This is a relatively large order of sharks, including 12 families, and the species within are quite diverse in form. For example, the threshers sharks (Family Alopiidae) have evolved an exaggeratedly elongated tail (you can learn more at Watch Me Whip). They also vary in terms of physiology. For example, "endothermy" has developed in some families (you can learn more about this at Sharks Packing Heat) (Compagno, 2002).
The final order of sharks, the ground sharks, is the largest of extant orders, including in excess of 270 species! This order is distinguished from its close relative as these sharks have a nictating membrane which protects the eye. Like other closely-related orders, they have five gill slits, two spineless dorsal fins and an anal fin. You would almost certainly recognise some of these sharks, as this order includes the iconic hammerheads (family Sphyrnidae) and the requiem sharks (family Carcharinidae), such as the reef sharks, Carcharhinus perezi and C. amblyrhynchos... which you might have seen in James Bond films (Compagno, 2002).
See! Not all sharks are the same - like the archetypal great whites and reef sharks! In fact, they are remarkably diverse; evolved to fill every "ecological niche" available in our wonderful, enormous oceans!
To learn more about the remarkable diversity of sharks and they relatives, you can check out Kissing Cousins.
Stein RW, Mull CG, Kuhn TS, Aschliman NC, Davidson LNK, Joy JB, Smith GJ, Dulvy NK & Mooers AO (2018). Global priorities for conserving the evolutionary history of sharks, rays and chimaeras, Nature Ecology & Evolution, DOI: 10.1038/s41559-017-0448-4.