The Zebra Bullhead Shark (Heterodontus zebra) is a common but little-known member of the Bullhead and Horn Shark family, Heterodontidae. This group of bottom dwelling sharks consists of a single genus that includes eight living species. They are small, gawky-looking creatures that really don’t look much like your typical shark.
This particular bullhead species lives in the subtropical waters of the western Pacific Ocean. Despite its awkward shape, this aquatic “zebra” is a particularly attractive fish, colored with dark vertical stripes on a pale background.
Zebra Bullhead Shark Facts
Bullheads sharks get their name from their large heads: the heavy brow bone over each eye gives them a bull-like appearance.
This species reaches a maximum known length of about 1.25 m (4.13 ft).
Habitat and Range
The Zebra Bullhead Shark inhabits shallow waters in the western Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean, on the continental and island shelves of northwestern Australia and eastern Asia (including Japan, Korea, China, Viet Nam and Indonesia). It has typically been recorded at depths around 50 m (164 ft), but inhabits even deeper waters in Australian, down to around 150-200 m (495-660 ft).
Very little is known about the biology and life history of this species. Bullheads are associated with rocky reefs and sea bottom habitats, where they wiggle clumsily as they swim around. No information is available about populations, although the species is known to be common within its range.
Bullhead sharks in general have a piggish snout, a smallish mouth on the underside of the head, and flat, molar-like hind teeth that are well suited for crushing shells. No published information about the diet of this species was encountered. However if it is anything like other bullheads, it probably feeds on bottom invertebrates, shellfish, molluscs and small fishes.
Some other members of this genus are known to form aggregations (e.g. the Port Jackson shark, H. portusjacksoni), but no information about zebra bullhead social activity was encountered.
Little is known about the reproduction of this species. Males become mature at roughly 64 to 84 cm (25-33″) in length. Information about spawning is unknown but the breeding system is oviparous: female bullsharks produce large, spiral-shaped egg cases. The newborn sharks measure at least 15 cm (6″).
Humans and Conservation
These sharks are not considered to be a threat to humans, although their powerful teeth would be capable of producing an injury.
Zebra bullheads are of little interest to commercial fisheries. However they are caught asbycatch by commercial trawlers that target other species. For example, the species has been observed in the catches of bottom-trawlers in Taiwan. This multi-species fishery, based mainly in Keelung, recorded various small, bottom dwelling sharks that were taken as bycatch. Zebra bullheads were one of the main sharks captured from the 1930s to 1960s.
The species may also be subject to threat from destructive fishing practices in Indonesia, including cyanide and dynamite fishing, and degradation of coastal habitats.
According to the last IUCN status report on this species, its use in the aquarium trade is not recorded, although its attractive color pattern makes it an obvious candidate. In fact, zebra bullheads and other members of this family are traded for use in home fish aquaria (according to an article on Fish Channel.com). Apparently this species does not fare well in captivity, compared to the hardiness of other Heterodontus sharks.
The IUCN Red List assesses this species as Least Concern, because it is a wide-ranging and common shark that probably has a high rate of fecundity, given that it is an egg-layer. No particular threats to its populations are known.
Barratt P. & Cavanagh RD (2003). Heterodontus zebra. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2.
Chen C-T, Liu K-M, Joung S-J & Phipps MJ (2002). Taiwan’s shark fishery – an overview. Pages 95-103. In Fowler SL, Reed TM, Dipper FA (eds), Elasmobranch Biodiversity, Conservation and Management: Proceedings of the International Seminar and Workshop, Sabah, Malaysia, July 1997. IUCN, 2002.
Compagno LJV (2001). Sharks of the world. An annotated and illustrated catalogue of shark species known to date. Vol. 2. Bullhead, mackerel and carpet sharks (Heterodontiformes, Lamniformes and Orectolobiformes). FAO Spec. Cat. Fish. Purp. 1(2):269p. Rome: FAO.
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