I Met One of the World's Rarest Species and It Was Amazing, Tiny and Felt Like Sandpaper

Pocket Shark
A pocket shark lays in a pool of alcohol in New York City, June 4, 2015. Polly Mosendz/Newsweek

Eleven of us stood and stared at the little fellow. He could neither move nor make a sound, yet some of the world's finest scientists, museum researchers and three lucky reporters were transfixed. "He's so small," a man near me said excitedly. "He's so cute!" I retorted. The pocket shark didn't have anything to say for itself, as it swayed gently in its pool of alcohol.

The five-and-a-half-inch pocket shark is one of the most exciting aquatic discoveries of the year. The shark is likely one of two of its kind ever seen by humans. The second is in Russia, and it has not been preserved nearly as well. It is a larger adult female, whereas the shark our small group met Thursday was a younger male. For a variety of logistical reasons, the two have not yet been compared and if scientists discover they aren't of the same species, the pocket shark I viewed could be the only known of its kind.

In Focus

Photos: Face to Face With the Rare Pocket Shark

Only two sharks believed to be in this species have been found.
Launch Slideshow 12 PHOTOS

As I wandered into the security entrance of the American Natural History Museum, where the shark is being kept temporarily, several guards asked what I was doing there and why I hadn't paid for admission. I explained I was there to see the tiny, extremely rare shark and for the most part they were not amused. Thankfully, a member of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) saw my look of desperation and came to my rescue.

NOAA was responsible for discovering the little shark and bringing it to the public. It had arrived in New York to be seen by few researchers this week and was to be delivered to D.C. over the weekend, where it will be displayed briefly to the general public at the Smithsonian.

It was NOAA researcher Mark Grace who found this pocket shark, and it was entirely by accident. Grace spent three years identifying about 3,500 creatures collected in during a 2010 haul from the Gulf of Mexico, part of a study on the dietary habits of sperm whales. In the final gallon bag, he discovered the pocket shark, which he could not identify despite his deep knowledge of sea creatures. Experts at Tulane University came to Grace's aid, finding a text written in Russian that described a similar animal. It was then that they realized their accidentally collected specimen was one of the world's rarest creatures.

From New Orleans, the pocket shark was sent all over the world, including to Paris and Grenoble, where it was CT-scanned and later scanned by a Synchrotron, a powerful machine that allowed scientists to view 22,000 individual intersections inside the pocket shark. Such technology is superior even to dissection when it comes to understanding the makeup of an animal. Had all of the scanned intersections been printed out and stacked upon, the sheets of paper would rise more than seven feet high---all of that information out of one tiny animal, less than half a foot long.

By the time the pocket shark arrived at New York City's Natural History Museum, the scans had been collected onto the various high-powered computers used by the museum's researchers and the shark had done more traveling than the average American.

After being rescued by the NOAA member, I was led to the elevator and up to the fifth floor--an area clearly marked for staff only--by a museum employee with a badge that appeared to lend her a status of utmost importance. Exiting the elevator, we weaved between storage rooms, scientific equipment and boxes of what I would assume is important scientific materials. "Only two percent of what the museum has is displayed," the employee explained as I marveled at the size of the research facility.

As the small group of scientists and reporters entered the room in which the pocket shark was being temporarily housed, we were met with a huge CT scanner and a T-Rex vertebrae, which, strangely, I found to be the less exciting scientific discovery in the room.

The shark lay in a miniature bathtub at the far end of the room on its own, special table. When you're one of two, or perhaps just one of one, you get a bit of extra treatment as a species. Behind the pocket shark were several fossils of distant relatives and a preserved cookie cutter shark floating in a jar.

Grace explained the ordeal of finding the shark and having it travel around the world for research as we all stared at it. What stood out above all else was just how tiny it is. The shark's little teeth, a miniature version of the menacing jaws the cookie cutter is known for, brushed against the bottom of its pool. Its pocket--the shark's claim to fame--was barely visible because of its overall size.

On computers surrounding the pocket shark, images of the animal were blown up to multiple times their actual size. One screen showed a scan of a menacing set of chompers, a far cry from the teeth we saw with our own eyes, which were less than millimeter in length.

After much anticipation, the shark was removed from its pool. "Let me get its diaper," Grace said, pulling out a soft piece of white gauze in which he held the shark. With his other hand, he grabbed a set of large forceps and picked up the shark by its tail, placing it into his gauze-covered palm.

The scientist flipped the pocket shark on its back, exposing its teeth and wrinkly underside. Apprehensive but unable to pass up the opportunity, I blurted out: "Can I touch it?" To my shock and delight, Grace said we could all touch the shark, if we'd like. I rubbed his side, as one might do a dog, and felt a surprising texture. I expected something smooth, or perhaps slimey, though I had no scientific reasoning for my prediction. Instead, I was met with rough, sandpaper-like flesh.

After the trio of excitable reporters had pet the dead pocket shark, Grace elegantly swung him off his diaper and back into the alcohol pool. Satisfied with our experience, the reporters were led by a museum employee into another room reserved for scanning. There, the museum was performing a scan for comet dust, for NASA. Under most any other circumstances, it would have been the highlight of the day, but between touching one of the world's rarest sharks and spotting part of a T-Rex, the cosmic dust had to settle for the bronze.