Sharks and chimaeras: large venomous spines

Venomous fishes of southern Australia series

Fin spines, which probably evolved as a means of protection, are generally associated with advanced fishes. However, such spines occur in all three of the living cartilaginous fish groups, but have developed in quite a different fashion in these more primitive groups.

Photo of Port Jackson Shark, Heterodontus portusjacksoni

Port Jackson Shark, Heterodontus portusjacksoni
Photographer: Rudie Kuiter. Source: Aquatic Photographics

Among sharks, the Port Jackson (family Heterodontidae) and dogfish sharks (family Squalidae) usually have a single spine at the beginning of each dorsal fin. More than twenty species from these families occur in south-eastern Australian waters, but most live well away from the coastline and are only encountered by professional fishers.

Although only a few of these sharks are known to be venomous, it is likely that all sharks with spines may produce venom. The toxin, contained in the tissue embedded in a groove along the spine, can inflict intense localised pain, swelling, numbness and muscle weakness.

Photo of Elephantfish, Callorhynchus millii

Elephantfish, Callorhynchus millii
Photographer: Rudie Kuiter. Source: Aquatic Photographics

Likewise, the chimaeras or ghost sharks (family Chimaeridae), the elephant fishes (family Callorhynchidae) and the longnose chimaeras (family Rhinochimaeridae) all have a prominent strong pungent spine at the beginning of the first dorsal fin, which is reported to be venomous. Fortunately, only the elephant fish, Callorhynchus milii occurs in shallow water where it is occasionally taken on hook and line in the channels of bays and estuaries.

Further Reading

Edmonds, C. 1989. Dangerous Marine Creatures. Reed, Sydney.

Halstead, B. W.  1970. Poisonous and venomous marine animals of the world.  Volume 3. US Government Printing Office, Washington DC.

Last, P. R. and Stevens, J. D. 1994. Sharks and Rays of Australia. Melbourne. CSIRO Publications: Melbourne.

Gomon, M. F., Glover, C. J. M. and Kuiter, R. H. (eds). Fishes of Australia’s South Coast. State Print, Adelaide.

Comments (4)

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ross green 12 September, 2011 19:43
found one of these floundering in the shallow water 3 inches at aspendale beach at about 6 pm, it was more of a brown color, it seemed stuck on its side, with a pair of gloves i picked it up it strugled,had good strength, tried spiking me with dorsal spike, i walked it to deeper water to let it go, it turned toward me then it headed out
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Jack 2 March, 2014 09:14
It's cool
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A Brian Cain 2 June, 2017 05:19
When I was living on Lake Leelanau in the 1950's we had many "dogfish" in the lake. They looked exactly like a salt water shark except that the color was more greenish than grey. I saw many of them because no one knew that they were a delicacy so they just left them to die on the beach when one was caught. Can you verify that such a fresh water dogfish exists? My friends say I'm crazy!
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Discovery Centre 2 June, 2017 13:45
Hi Brian - The fauna of Michigan lakes are little outside our expertise here in Australia, but some research has revealed that Lake Leelanau is a location known for a fish called the Bowfin, which is regionally known by the common name 'Dogfish'. Unfortunately though, the Bowfin is a bony fish and not a type of shark or chimera, and it is quite unrelated to the 'true' Dogfish mentioned in the article here. This can happen at times with common names, which can misrepresent the true classification of animals.
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