What it's like to be bitten by the cookiecutter shark

Here's something for all you beachcombers this Fourth of July. Researchers have documented the first-ever case of a cookiecutter shark attacking a human. Although this shark maxes out at ~22 inches, its scoop-like bite is the stuff of nightmares.

The cookiecutter shark (a.k.a. the cigar shark) may not be the most dangerous shark out there, but its modus is gnarly. The cookiecutter shark spends the day two miles below the surface and ascends at night to hunt.

Its attacks are hit-and-run — the cookiecutter quickly twists out circular lumps of flesh from its much-larger prey before jetting off. Its bloody brand has been found on seals, tuna, whales, and other sharks.

A recent paper in the journal Pacific Science however describes the first scientifically documented attack on a human by the tiny cookiecutter. In 2009, distance swimmer Mike Spalding was attacked off the coast of Hawai'i. Explain the authors:

The victim was an accomplished long-distance swimmer attempting to cross the Alenuihaha Channel on a straight-line track from ‘Upolu Point on the island of Hawai‘i to Kaupo, Maui [...] The total distance was 47.5 km, and crossing time was expected to take 16-20 hrs.

At 2003 hrs, the victim suddenly felt a very sharp pain on his lower chest, and assumed it was a triggerfish bite. The sensation was instantaneous and localized, like a pin prick, and felt like a bite from a very small mouth. The victim yelped and swam over to the kayak, turned off the bow light, and was in the process of getting into the kayak with his legs vertical and "egg-beatering" to maintain position when he felt something bite his left calf. The time interval between the two bites was less than 15 seconds. The sensation of the bite to the leg was slightly more prolonged (but still very quick, less than a second), involved some pressure, and was less painful than the chest bite. [...]

Inspection of the wounds in the emergency room showed a superficial C-shaped wound on the mid/lower sternum [...] and a circular open wound of the posterior lower left leg [...] The leg wound was located at the junction of the middle and lower third of the calf. It represented a near circle and measured approximately 10 cm in diameter and 4 cm in depth.

Here's what Spalding's leg injury looked like (warning — not for the squeamish). Here's also a BBC clip of the cookiecutter taking a chunk out of a tuna. The cookiecutter is found around islands all over the globe, but you won't be courting the cookiecutter's rare kiss unless you're indulging in some night swimming.

I wish they made a Jaws sequel about a massive school of these little bastards. If I had my filmmaking druthers, I'd schedule Cookiecutters for the winter holiday to attract the lucrative "parents-who-didn't-do-their-research" demographic.

[Via Treehugger. Photograph via Carl Bento/The Australian Museum]