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Original Article

The unicorn shark (Glyphis varium) is a small, rare fresh water shark native to central and southern California.[1] It is the only requiem shark species found in North America.[2]

Taxonomy and Appearance

The unicorn shark has only recently been classified as a distinct Carcharhinidae shark species, but it is believed to have existed in Native American culture for over 1000 years. The unicorn shark may have been first documented by the redwood engravings of the Chumash Indian tribe that once flourished along the California coastline.[1] Sharks are known to have been an important aspect of the Chumash diet[3], and painted relics have been found to contain images of what appear to be unicorn sharks.[1]

The unicorn shark resembles the Ganges shark (Glyphis gangeticus) of India and is sometimes mistaken for the Ganges despite the two species being endemic to different continents.[2] Named after the uniquely anterior location of it's dorsal fin, the unicorn shark's large brown eyes; long, narrow tail; and pointed caudal fin are distinctive among river sharks. Small and vigerous, it is a highly animate fish. Its length at maturity is estimated to be 148 to 165 cm.[2]

Ecology and Behavior

Although the species primarily inhabits the rivers and lakes of California, unicorn sharks have also been documented in Oregon, Arizona and Mexico. There have been unsubstantiated reports of the unicorn shark as far as the estuaries of the Illinois River.[4]

Unicorn sharks are known to be amphidromous,[4] but the nature of their migratory patterns are not well understood. They are likely viviparous, and the details of unicorn shark gestation are unknown.[2] The unicorn shark is typically a solitary hunter, but has been noted to hunt in pairs. A nocturnal hunter, it prefers to carefully stalk its unsuspecting prey in the murky depths where its deceptive movements are difficult to study.[4] Human interaction is so infrequent that it is not considered a threat to humans, and despite its highly aggressive nature there is no record of a unicorn shark ever attacking a human.

Although not formally an endangered species, the unicorn shark populations are known to be extremely limited, and the World Conservation Union has assessed the species as Vulnerable


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Dr. Laurence M. Hardy. Lizard on a String: Biologists Exploring Baja California del Sur – A Half-Century Ago. Los Angeles: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Klimley, A. Peter. The Biology of Sharks and Rays. Chicago: University Of Chicago, 2013. Print.
  3. Sharks and the Chumash. Santa Barbara Independent (August 14, 2008). Retrieved on January 1, 2013.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Sue Blackhall. Killers in the Water: The New Super Sharks Terrorising the World's Oceans. London: John Blake, 2012.
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