The puffadder shyshark (Haploblepharus edwardsii), also known as the ‘happy eddie’, is an endemic catshark species residing in the temperate waters off the South African coastline. It is a benthic species commonly found on or near the bottom in sandy or rocky habitats and kelp forests, from the intertidal zone to a depth of 288 metres – though mostly at depths of 30-90 metres. Like other sharks belonging to the same genus, the puffadder shyshark curls into an adorable doughnut shape with its tailing covering its eyes when it feels threatened.
Their pattern has similarities with a puffadder snake, hence their name. Puffadder shysharks are a gorgeous sandy brown colour with several reddish-brown saddles outlined in black that are accompanied by a variety of smaller dark brown and white spots in between. Their beautiful oval cat-eyes are relatively large and have a nictitating membrane to protect them, especially when feeding. The diet of these mesopelagic predators mainly comprises of crustaceans, polychaete worms and small bony fishes. Similar to other catshark species, puffadder shysharks are a small species of shark and have a maximum length of approximately 64cm.
Puffadder shysharks reach sexual maturity at roughly 7 years of age and have a life expectancy of around 22 years. Like other catshark species, the puffadder shyshark reproduces oviparously with females laying egg cases, colloquially known as mermaids purses. The pups take 9 months to hatch and feed off the nutrient rich yolk sac whilst they grow. Research indicates that the hatching rate of egg cases is temperature specific and so may potentially be sensitive to climate change.
Many larger shark species, and other marine predators, predate on the puffadder shyshark. Cape fur seals have been documented hunting and playing with puffadder shysharks, with black-backed kelp gulls sneaking by and stealing the kill from the cape fur seal in a phenomenon known as ‘kleptoparasitism’.
The latest IUCN Red List Assessment of this species lists this species as ‘endangered’ from its previous ‘near threatened’ status as the population is sadly decreasing. Scientists estimate that the puffadder shyshark has experienced a population reduction of 50-90% over the last three generations (roughly 60 years). Due to being a benthic species, puffadder shysharks frequently end up as bycatch from a range of fisheries, including gillnets, demersal shark longlines and trawlers. They are also commonly caught and discarded by shore-based recreational fishers due to them being considered a nuisance.
Presently there are no species-specific protections or conservation measures in place for the puffadder shyshark. Education and awareness are both important tools in improving the conservation of the species, alongside wider ecosystem management such as marine protected areas and fisheries management, monitoring and enforcement.
Kleptoparasitism – a form of feeding in which one animal takes prey or other food that was caught, collected, or otherwise prepared by another animal, including stored food.
Nictitating Membrane – a transparent or translucent membrane or inner eyelid present in some shark species that can be drawn across the eye for protection, especially when feeding as prey may inflict damage while trying to protect itself.