Deep-sea chimaera
Image credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program

When thinking of bizarre deepwater creatures, the iconic anglerfish or blobfish might come to mind. But the deep ocean is home to a wide array of wildlife, and plenty of other fascinating critters also live there, like the spooky-looking chimaera, or ghost shark. Also commonly known as the rabbitfish, the ghost shark is not actually a single species. This term refers to animals in the order Chimaeriformes, which contains three distinct families: Callorhinchidae, Chimaeridae, and Rhinochimaeridae. Together, these three families all contain roughly 50 living species that can be found throughout the world. To make matters even more confusing, the ghost shark isn’t actually a shark, but rather a cartilaginous fish (similarly to how the gulper eel isn’t actually an eel, despite its name). So, when someone talks about ghost sharks, just know that there are a number of different fish they could be referring to.

The ghost shark is an exclusively deep-sea marine fish that can live thousands of feet beneath the surface of the ocean, with most living at or beneath 660 ft (200 m). Scientists have recorded the pointy-nosed blue chimaera (Hydrolagus trolli), for example, at depths of almost 6,560 ft (2,000 m), and some species can have been recorded even deeper than this!

Image credit: Citron / CC-BY-SA-3.0.
A pointy-nosed blue chimaera (Hydrolagus trolli). Image credit: Citron / CC-BY-SA-3.0.

The ghost shark earns its name for its distinct appearance. Its eyes, particularly, play a large role in its naming; they contain a reflective tissue layer, making them look pale and somewhat ghostly. Other noticeable features of this fish include its gills. Unlike most real sharks, the ghost shark does not have five gills, but only one on each side. The various species of ghost shark come in many different colors, from pale off-white to bluish to even speckled brown.

Also unlike true sharks, ghost sharks do not give birth to live young, but rather lay eggs in cases.

How long do ghost sharks live?

It’s hard to generalize, but at least one species of ghost shark, the Australian ghost shark or elephantfish (Callorhinchus milii), can live up to 15 years.

Image source: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.
The Australian ghost shark, also known as the elephant fish (Callorhinchus milii). Image credit: Edgar R. Waite (1921). Image source: Freshwater and Marine Image Bank.

How big are ghost sharks?

Ghost sharks can come in a variety of sizes, but they are usually smaller fish, only growing to a few feet in length. Certain species can reach up to 6 ft (2 m).

What do ghost sharks eat?

Not much is known about the dietary habits of the ghost shark. Scientists believe, however, that various species, like the spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei), will eat mollusks, invertebrates, crustaceans, and small fish.

Image credit: NOAA/CBNMS.
Spotted ratfish (Hydrolagus colliei). Image credit: NOAA/CBNMS. Photographer: Tara Anderson/NMFS/SWFSC.

Ghost Shark Caught on Camera