The spotted wobbegong (Orectolobus maculatus) belongs to the Orectolobidae family, and is found in the eastern Indian Ocean around Australia; it is possibly endemic to this region. A relatively large shark (reaching lengths of up to 3m/9.8 ft), other common names are “carpet shark,” “common carpet shark,” “common catshark,” “tassel shark,” or just “wobbegong.”
This wobbegong can be distinguished by its unique pattern of dark saddle-like markings on their dorsal side on top of a golden-brown colour. On top of these are white rings scattered about.
The genus name Orectolobus is Greek from orectos (stretched out) and lobos (a rounded projection). The species name maculatus is Latin from macula (spot), most likely referencing the patterns on the shark’s body. The word ‘wobbegong’ itself is an Australian aboriginal word. Spotted Wobbegongs are found in the shallow, coastal waters of Australia down to about 100 m. These sharks are famous for their lie-in-wait hunting strategy, known to swallow smaller prey whole. Feeding primarily takes place at night, and food menu items include fish, crayfish, crustaceans and even cephalopods.
Habitat and Diet
Favorite foods of the spotted wobbegong include invertebrates such as crabs, lobsters, and octopi as well as bony fish such as sea bass and luderick. This shark is nocturnal, hunting at night and resting during the day. O. maculatus can extend its reach during prey capture by as much as 30% of the nasal distance from its anteriormost point to the anterior edge of the pectoral fin. This is equivalent to the combined length of the head and branchial arches.
The spotted wobbegong often sits at the bottom and waits for prey to wander near its mouth. Prey has even been known to nibble on this shark’s tentacles before being eaten. Other times this shark has been observed to slowly sneak up on its prey from a long distance.
Occurring on continental shelves, from the intertidal zone down to 360 feet (110 m), the spotted wobbegong is commonly found on or around reefs, under piers and on sandy bottoms. There have been many sightings of this shark in water barely deep enough to cover its entire body. It is considered sluggish and inactive and is often found resting on the ocean floor.
Status in the Wild
The spotted wobbegong is currently assessed as “Near Threatened” in waters off New South Wales due to serious declines in population numbers in that region and “Near Threatened” throughout the remainder of its range by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List. The IUCN consists of a global union of state, governmental agencies, and non-governmental organizations in partnership whose goal is to assess the conservation status of different species.
- There are 12 known species of wobbegongs.
- Wobbegong sharks are nocturnal (active at night).
- The name wobbegong comes from the Aborigine name meaning “shaggy beard”. They are also called carpet sharks.
- They are not obligate ram ventilators (sharks that have to force water through their mouths and over their gills in order to breathe). They simply lay on the ocean floor, lazily, and open their mouths, sucking water in and over their gills. So they don’t have to keep swimming in order to breathe.
- These sharks are ambush predators. They lay in wait for passing prey to happen upon their tassels thinking they are food. Then the typically lazy wobbegong opens their mouth, creating a vacuum and sucking in the prey whole. They snap up their prey in the blink of an eye.
- Wobbegong sharks can actually move across the ocean floor using their bottom fins, which looks just like they are walking.
- Their jaws are powerful and they also have very sharp teeth, albeit small, that can cut through wetsuit material, yielding a painful bite.