Port Jackson Shark Click to enlarge image
A Port Jackson Shark photographed at Shark Point, New South Wales. Port Jackson Sharks can easily be recognised by the distinct harness-like pattern on the side of the body. Image: Ákos Lumnitzer
© Ákos Lumnitzer

Fast Facts

  • Classification
    Species
    portusjacksoni
    Genus
    Heterodontus
    Family
    Heterodontidae
    Order
    Heterodontiformes
    Class
    Chondrichthyes
    Subphylum
    Vertebrata
    Phylum
    Chordata
    Kingdom
    Animalia
  • Size Range
    The Port Jackson Shark grows to 1.65 m in length. More commonly, males grow to 75 cm and females between 80 cm and 95 cm.

Introduction

The Port Jackson Shark is a distinctive blunt-headed fish that has a spine in front of both dorsal fins. Port Jackson Sharks have harness-like markings which cross the eyes, run along the back to the first dorsal fin, then cross the side of the body. This pattern makes it very easy to identify the species.



Identification

The Port Jackson Sharks has a blunt head and harness-like markings which cross the eyes, run along the back to the first dorsal fin, then cross the side of the body. This pattern makes it very easy to identify the species.

Only the heterodontid sharks have the combination of no anal fin and spines on the leading edge of the two dorsal fins.

The family Heterodontidae has eight species, all in the genus Heterodontus, three of which are found in Australian waters. These are the Port Jackson Shark, the Zebra Horn Shark, Heterodontus zebra, and the Crested Horn Shark, Heterodontus galeatus.



Habitat

Port Jackson Sharks usually live in rocky environments on, or near, the bottom. Sometimes they are found in muddy and sandy areas, or where seagrass occurs.

Distribution

The Port Jackson Shark occurs in southern Australian waters from southern Queensland south to Tasmania and west to the central coast of Western Australia.

There are some questionable records of the Port Jackson Sharks being caught as far north as York Sound in Western Australia. The species has been recorded only once from New Zealand. Studies of Port Jackson Shark genetics suggest there may be two populations in Australia, one occurring from southern Queensland to New South Wales and the second from north-eastern Victoria to Western Australia.

The map below shows the Australian distribution of the species based on public sightings and specimens in Australian Museums. Click on the map for detailed information.



Feeding and diet

Dietary items include sea urchins, molluscs, crustaceans and fishes. Black sea urchins, Centrostephanus rodgersi are often eaten.

Port Jackson Sharks forage for food at night when their prey are most active. They often use caves and rocky outcrops as protection during the day.

When most people think of shark teeth, they think of large, sharp teeth like those in the film 'Jaws'. Not all sharks have teeth like these. The teeth of the Port Jackson Shark are very different. They are not serrated, and the front teeth have a very different shape to those found at the back of the jaws, hence the genus name Heterodontus (from the Greek heteros meaning 'different' and dont 'meaning' tooth The anterior teeth are small and pointed whereas the posterior teeth are broad and flat. The teeth function to hold and break, then crush and grind the shells of molluscs and echinoderms.

Juvenile Port Jackson Sharks have more pointed teeth and feed on a higher proportion of soft-bodied prey than adults. They can feed by sucking in water and sand from the bottom, blowing the sand out of the gill slits, and retaining the food which is swallowed.

Other behaviours and adaptations

Port Jackson Sharks have the ability to eat and breathe at the same time. This ability is unusual for sharks, many of which need to swim with the mouth open to force water over the gills. The Port Jackson Shark can pump water into the first enlarged gill slit and out through the other four gill slits. By pumping water across the gills, the shark does not need to move to 'breathe'. It can lie on the bottom for long periods of time, a behaviour that is observed at breeding time.

Life history cycle

When they hatch, juvenile Port Jackson Sharks, called pups, are about 25 cm long.

According to Rogers (2000), "Tagging studies showed the eastern sharks migrate large distances each year (600-800 kilometres) between their feeding grounds in Bass Strait and reproductive aggregations along the New South Wales coast".

View more on the 'Adopt a Shark' webpage.


Port Jackson Shark, Heterodontus portusjacksoni
Egg case of a Port Jackson Shark (AMS I.1417) Image: Paul Ovendon
© Australian Museum

Breeding behaviours

View a movie of Port Jackson Sharks mating at Manly, 16 August 2012.

The breeding season is usually late winter and into spring. At this time, divers regularly observe sharks congregating in caves, under ledges and in gutters.

Port Jackson Sharks are oviparous, which means that the female lays eggs. The egg case is a tough, dark brown spiral about 7 cm to 8 cm wide and 15 cm long. It is common to see them washed up on beaches.

The egg case is soft when laid by the female. She uses her mouth to wedge the egg case into a rock crevice where it hardens, and from which one young shark emerges after ten to twelve months. The Crested Horn Shark has a similar-looking egg case with the addition of long twisted tendrils on the bottom end. These are often attached to seaweed.

Female Port Jackson Sharks mature at 11 to 14 years of age, whereas males only take around 8 to 10 years.

Sharks are oviparous (like the Port Jackson Shark), viviparous (give birth to live young), such as the Blue Shark or ovovivaparous (produce eggs which stay in the female and hatch inside the parent with no placental connection), such as the Grey Nurse Shark.


Port Jackson Sharks mating
Port Jackson Sharks mating at a depth of 12 m, near Fingal Island, Port Stephens, New South Wales, July 2009. Image: Dave Harasti
© Dave Harasti

Danger to humans

Port Jackson Sharks are considered harmless to humans, although the teeth, whilst not large or sharp, can give a painful bite.

The shark has two similar-sized dorsal fins. Each fin has a spine at the leading edge, which is reputed to be venomous. The spines of juveniles can be quite sharp, but those of the adults are usually blunt. The spines are sometimes found washed up on beaches and have been mistaken for all sorts of things from bird beaks to goat horns. These spines are believed to have given rise to the common name of the family, 'Horn Sharks'.

The sharp spines of small individuals are an excellent defence mechanism. The video below shows what happens when a predator tries to eat a small California Horn Shark, Heterodontus francisci.



References

  1. Brown, R.W. 1956. Composition of Scientific Words. R. W. Brown. Pp. 882.
  2. Dingerkus, G. in Stevens J.D.(ed) 1987. Sharks. Golden Press. Pp. 240.
  3. Guttridge, T.L. & C. Brown. 2013. Learning and memory in the Port Jackson Shark, Heterodontus portusjacksoni. Anim. Cogn. DOI 10.1007/s10071-013-0673-4.
  4. Kuiter, R.H. 1993. Coastal Fishes of South-Eastern Australia. Crawford House Press. Pp. 437.
  5. Kuiter, R.H. 1996. Guide to Sea Fishes of Australia. New Holland. Pp. 433.
  6. Last, P.R. & J.D. Stevens. 1994. Sharks and Rays of Australia. CSIRO. Pp. 513.
  7. Rogers, C. 2000. Port Jackson Sharks. Nature Australia, 26(10):26-33.
  8. Stevens, J.D. in Gomon, M.F., J.C.M. Glover & R.H. Kuiter (Eds). 1994. The Fishes of Australia's South Coast. State Print, Adelaide. Pp. 992.
  9. Stevens, J. & P.R. Last in Paxton, J.R. & W.N. Eschmeyer (Eds). 1994. Encyclopedia of Fishes. Sydney: New South Wales University Press; San Diego: Academic Press [1995]. Pp. 240.