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Making a monster: The bizarre development of hammerhead sharks

In a recent study, scientists from the University of Florida have unveiled the mysterious process of how hammerhead sharks, renowned for their peculiar head shape, undergo dramatic changes during their gestation. 

“This is a look at how monsters form,” said Gareth Fraser, a UF professor of Biology who supervised the new study. “This is an insight into the development of a wonder of nature that we haven’t seen before and may not be able to see again.”

Surprising transformations 

The research highlighted the surprising transformations that bonnethead shark embryos, a species of hammerhead, experience during their growth. 

Approximately mid-gestation, these two-inch-long embryos begin to widen their heads drastically. This expansion pushes their developing eyes outwards, creating an eerie and unnatural appearance. 

Subsequently, the front of this “hammer” shape continues to evolve, moving backward toward the gills until it takes on a shovel-like form. A few months post this transformation, a foot-long shark emerges into the world.

Focus of the study 

Steven Byrum, a graduate student, teamed up with Professor Fraser to lead this detailed investigation of bonnetheads, which are abundant in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. Given their proximity to the shore, bonnetheads provide a unique opportunity for study.

What makes this study even more remarkable is the inherent challenges in studying the development of hammerheads. Unlike many fish and sharks that lay eggs, which can be studied in a controlled lab environment, hammerheads give birth to live young. 

This natural process, combined with the endangered status of many shark species, prevents the harvesting of sharks for developmental research. To conduct this study without causing harm to additional sharks, Fraser’s team utilized preserved embryos from bonnetheads obtained during other biological research endeavors.

Unique opportunity 

“It’s the perfect qualities of the bonnethead that allowed us to do it with this species,” said Byrum. “This was a unique opportunity we may not be able to get for very much longer with bonnetheads and may not be able to get in any other species of hammerhead.”

The study was a collaborative effort that involved Gavin Naylor, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History, as well as scientists from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Florida State University.

Future research 

This documentation now paves the way for future experiments. The researchers hope to uncover the mechanisms that govern the hammerhead’s head shape evolution and to decipher the evolutionary reasons behind their unique features, which are believed to enhance their visual field and ability to detect the electrical movements of their prey.

“Documenting the development of hard-to-access vertebrates, like this viviparous shark species, offers important information about how new and diverse morphologies arise that otherwise may remain poorly studied,” wrote the researchers.

“This work will serve as a platform for future comparative developmental research both within sharks and across the phylogeny of vertebrates, underpinning the extreme potential of craniofacial development and morphological diversity in vertebrate animals.”

More about hammerhead sharks 

Hammerhead sharks are a distinctive group of sharks known for their unique, hammer-like head shape which is called a “cephalofoil.” This unusual structure provides them with several advantages in their marine environment:


There are nine recognized species of hammerhead sharks, including the well-known great hammerhead, scalloped hammerhead, and the bonnethead. Each species varies in size, habitat, and behavior.

Physical Characteristics


The hammer-shaped head improves their maneuverability, allowing them to make sharp turns quickly.


Their eyes are positioned on the ends of the cephalofoil, providing a wide field of vision and improved depth perception.


Hammerheads range in size, with smaller species like the bonnethead measuring around 3 to 4 feet long, while larger species like the great hammerhead can grow up to 20 feet.

Habitat and distribution

Hammerhead sharks are found worldwide in warmer waters along coastlines and continental shelves. They typically prefer temperatures ranging from 20 to 30 degrees Celsius (68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit).


Some species, like the scalloped hammerhead, often swim in schools, which is unusual for most shark species.

Despite their occasional schooling behavior, hammerheads usually hunt alone, using their cephalofoil to scan the ocean floor for prey.


Hammerheads primarily feed on fish, including other sharks, as well as squid, octopus, and crustaceans. Their wide-set eyes give them a better visual range to locate prey, while the cephalofoil assists in trapping stingrays, one of their favorite meals, against the seafloor.


Many species of hammerhead sharks are classified as endangered or vulnerable due to overfishing and the global shark fin trade. Conservation efforts are ongoing to protect these unique and important marine predators, including establishing shark sanctuaries and implementing fishing regulations.


As mentioned previously, hammerheads give birth to live young. Depending on the species, a female can give birth to a litter ranging from 6 to 42 pups every two years.

Hunting behavior

The cephalofoil is also believed to house a large number of electroreceptors, allowing hammerhead sharks to effectively detect the electrical signals emitted by other marine organisms, making them highly efficient predators.

Understanding and protecting hammerhead sharks is crucial due to their role in maintaining the health and balance of their marine ecosystems. The study by the University of Florida offers valuable insights into their developmental process, adding to the body of knowledge necessary for their conservation and management.

The research is published in the journal Developmental Dynamics.

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