THE MYSTERY OF THE ARCTIC’S TOXIC, LETHARGIC SHARK

ICELAND THEY have this delicacy
called hákarl that recently initiated
diners describe as “the worst
tasting food on Earth,” “the world’s
foulest food,” and “the worst thing
I have ever had in my mouth.” To
say it smells like a urinal would be
generous. Not that anyone should
be surprised, considering hákarl is
rotten shark meat fermented in the
dirt or open air for months on end.
Hákarl is no ordinary delicacy, but
then again, it comes from no
ordinary fish: The Greenland shark
has toxic flesh (hence the
detoxification via fermentation). It’s
also one of the most mysterious,
weirdest, and largest sharks on
Earth. It dives thousands of feet
deep in arctic waters and grows to
over 20 feet long. It’s also comically
slow, averaging less than a single
mile per hour—yet, bafflingly, it
seems to be an apex predator.
For the Greenland shark, pretty
much everything is on the menu.
Surveys of their stomach contents
have revealed squid, fish, and
whale meat. In 2013, two dudes in
Canada found a beached Greenland
shark that may have been choking
on a piece of, um, moose.The Greenland shark is a scavenger,
and it certainly has the teeth for it.
“The upper jaw has sharply pointed
teeth, almost like needles, and
those are really well adapted for
sinking into flesh and holding onto
it,” says marine biologist Gregory
Skomal of Massachusetts Marine
Fisheries. “The lower jaw has teeth
arranged in rows that look very
similar to what one would see on a
saw used to cut wood, and so
they’re really nice cutting tools.”
The Greenland shark is probably
getting a grip on a carcass with its
upper teeth, then twisting to gouge
out a chunk of flesh with the lower
teeth.
But that mouth could also do the
shark well for hunting live
prey. Consider the cookiecutter
shark, which has similar dentition.
This small, zippy species gouges
flesh like the Greenland, only it
targets living fish and whales and
at least one unfortunate man on a
swim between Hawaiian islands— at
night (I mean, I’m not his father,
but come on). The Greenland may
be doing the same to marine
mammals in the arctic. Scientists
have photographed beluga whales,
for instance, with big plugs of flesh
taken out of them.