This bottom-dwelling shark is flat and wide, similar to a ray, but its pectoral fins are not completely connected to its head to form a disc. It is a nocturnal ambush predator, spending a great deal of its daylight time buried in the sand or mud near rocks or kelp forests, camouflaged by its light coloring with darker spots and splotches. Unlike rays, angelsharks have tubular tails with asymmetrical caudal (tail) fins, and lack a venomous spine. They eat smaller bony fish and invertebrates, and can grow to 60 inches long, including the tail.
Order – Squatiniformes
Family – Squatinidae
Genus – Squatina
Species – californica
Common names in English include angelshark, Pacific angelshark, and Pacific angel shark. It is also referred to as “monk fish” because the shape of its head resembles the hood on a monk’s cloak. Other common names include ange de mer du Pacifique (French), angelote (Spanish), Californisk havengel (Nowegian), Kalifornianmerienkeli (Finnish), Kalifornisk havsängel (Swedish), Pacifische zee-engel (Dutch), Pazifischer Meerengel (German), pez ángel del Pacífico (Spanish), raszpla Kalifornijska (Polish), and tiburón angel (Spanish).
Importance to Humans
In the mid 1980s, the Pacific angelshark became part of a developing fishery, becoming an important food shark. It is commercially caught with gillnets and recreationally caught by divers and sportfishers with spears. The flesh is marketed fresh and frozen for human consumption.
Danger to Humans
Although this shark is a bottom dweller and appears harmless, it should be respected due to its powerful jaws and sharp teeth which can inflict painful lacerations if provoked. It may bite if a diver approaches the head or grabs the tail.
Only recently has there been a fishery for the Pacific angelshark off southern California. Currently there is a large regulated trawl and gillnet fishery for this species off the California coast. Commercial catch data for the Pacific angelshark shows that landings of this species went from 366 pounds (166 kg) in 1977 to over 700,000 pounds (310,000 kg) in 1984. However due to its slow reproductive rate and growth as well as late maturation, this species is vulnerable to over fishing. Currently, the gillnet fishery off California is closed until further notice due to depletion of the population. A continued fishery would pose a serious threat for this species in U.S. waters.
The Pacific angelshark is currently assessed as “Near Threatened” by the World Conservation Union (IUCN). The IUCN is a global union of states, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in a partnership that assesses the conservation status of species.
The Pacific angelshark lives in the eastern Pacific Ocean from southeastern Alaska to the Gulf of California and Costa Rica to southern Chile. Off the coast of California it is seen occasionally while between Oregon and southern Alaska it is uncommon to rare.
This shark, in contrast to many species of sharks, is benthic (bottom dweller). It buries itself in sand or mud bottoms during the day, coming out to actively search for food at night. It is often found on the continental shelf and littoral areas, and sometimes hang out near rocks, canyons and kelp forests. Off the coast of California, this angelshark can be found at depths from 3-656 feet (1-200 m) and to depths of 610 feet (185 m) in the Sea of Cortez. The adults are semi-nomadic, moving to new locations after spending days in a limited area. Although they commonly occur singly, this species may be found in aggregations.
The Pacific angelshark is dorsoventrally flattened with a terminal mouth at the tip of snout. Resembling angel wings, the pectoral fins are quite broad and separated from the head. This characteristic distinguishes angelsharks from the rays which have pectoral fins that are completely attached to the sides of the head. Eyes and spiracles are located on the top of the head, with five pairs of gill slits extending from the side of the head to under the throat. The gill slits of rays are located ventrally. Fleshy nasal barbels and flaps are also located on the head. This shark lacks an anal fin and spines are absent from the dorsal fins. The two dorsal fins are located on the rear of the body near the base of the tubular tail. The caudal fin is well developed with a longer lower lobe than upper lobe.
The Pacific angelshark is whitish with blotches of red, brown and gray. This species may occasionally be dark brown to black, splotched with shades of brown and black. These coloration patterns allow the shark to camouflage with mud and sandy bottoms.
This shark has pointed and conical teeth with smooth edges and broad bases. The upper jaw has 9-9 teeth and the lower jaw has 10-10 teeth with large gaps at each symphysis.
Size, Age, and Growth
Maximum length of the Pacific angelshark is 60″ (152 cm) with a maximum reported age of 35 years. Weights can reach up to 60 pounds (27 kg). Males reach maturity at lengths of 30-31″ (75-80 cm), after approximately 8 years of life, while females mature at slightly larger lengths of 35-39″ (90-100 cm), usually around 13 years of age.
The Pacific angelshark feeds on bony fishes including croakers, flatfish, corbina, blacksmith, hake, peppered shark and halibut. It is also known to consume invertebrates such as crustaceans and mollusks.
During daylight hours, the Pacific angelshark camouflages in sand and mud bottoms near patch reefs and rocky areas, waiting for potential prey. When a prey item comes within reach, the angelshark uses a quick ambush attack, surprising the prey and snatching it up with powerful jaws. After feeding, the shark settles back into the bottom substrate, awaiting another prey item. Feeding also occurs during nighttime hours when the angelshark cruises over the bottom in search of fish and invertebrates such as squids, octopus and crustaceans.
There is little known about the mating behavior of the Pacific angelshark other than that it probably occurs in early summer. Reproduction takes place via aplacental viviparity with the eggs hatching and the young developing inside the mother’s body, however there is no placenta to nourish the pups. Instead, nutrition is provided from an external yolk supply which gradually shrinks over time. This yolk gradually shifts into an internal sac when the embryo reaches 150 mm TL. The yolk is stored and transferred from this sac to the intestine of the embryo for absorption. The gestation period is approximately 10 months with birth occurring from March to June. Litter size ranges from 6-10, with the pups measuring 9.8″ (25 cm) at birth. Approximately 20% survive to maturity.
Larger sharks, including white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are potential predators of the Pacific angelshark.
The Pacific angelshark was described by the first curator of Ichthyology at the California Academy of Sciences, William O. Ayres, in 1859 as Squatina californica. The genus name Squatina is derived from Latin, meaning “a kind of shark”. Other references to this species which may be questionable include Squatina armata Philippi, 1887, Rhina armata Philippi, 1887, and Rhina philippi Garman, 1913. Approximately 15 species of angelshark in the family Squatiniformes which have been described, although there are species existing that have yet to be described.
Prepared by: Cathleen Bester