Spotted wobbegong (Orectolobus maculatus)

Also known as: carpet shark, wobbegong
Synonyms: Squalus appendiculatus, Squalus barbatus, Squalus lobatus
GenusOrectolobus (1)
SizeLength: up to 320 cm (2)

Classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1).

With its broad and flattened body, and cryptic colouration, the spotted wobbegong is perfectly adapted to a life on the seabed. It has yellowish-green or brown skin on its back, patterned with white ‘O’ shaped markings and dark blotches, and darker saddle-stripes. Fleshy projections (nasal barbels) used to taste and feel, hang down by the nostrils, and six to ten dermal lobes, or tassels of skin, hang below and in front of the eyes on each side of head (2) (3). Despite its unthreatening appearance, the spotted wobbegong is capable of inflicting powerful bites if provoked (2).

Occurs in the western Pacific, off the south coast of Australia. There are also records from Japan and the South China Sea but these require confirmation (2).

The spotted wobbegong inhabits temperate to tropical waters, from the intertidal zone down to depths of at least 110 meters. It is most common on algae-covered rocky reefs, but also occurs over coral reefs, sandy expanses and seagrass beds. It can be found in coastal bays, estuaries, under piers, and even in tidepools, where it has been observed climbing over rocks between tidepools with its back out of the water. Juveniles occur on low reefs, in seagrass beds, and in estuaries (2) (4).

The sluggish spotted wobbegong spends much of its day lying motionless on the bottom or hidden in caves, under overhangs or in shipwrecks. At night, the shark becomes more active, and swims, or moves about the sea floor, searching for prey to slowly sneak up on (2). Bottom-dwelling animals such as reef fishes, octopuses, crabs and rock lobsters are some of their preferred foods (4), many of which blunder unwittingly towards the mouth of the camouflaged wobbegong. By opening its wide mouth and expanding its throat, the wobbegong can effectively suck in its prey, trapping and killing it with its powerful jaws and big teeth. After a night spent hunting, the spotted wobbegong, which is observed singly or in aggregations, often returns to the same resting site (2). The nocturnal spotted wobbegong is an ovoviviparous shark, thus the embryos develop inside eggs that remain inside the mother until they hatch. Females give birth to large litters, usually of around 20 pups, but up to 37 pups have been recorded (5).

Wobbegong sharks are commonly caught in commercial and recreational fisheries, both as a target species and as by-catch (5). Its flesh is now highly regarded as food, and the attractively patterned skin has been used as decorative leather (5), although is not currently targeted for this purpose (1). As a result of these fisheries, numbers of the spotted wobbegong have declined significantly in New South Wales. Combined with the closely related banded wobbegong (Orectolobus ornatus), catches declined by over 60 percent between 1990 and 2000 (5). Whilst catches in southern and western Australia appear to be low and stable, the impact of fisheries on the east coast population indicate how vulnerable this species is to over-exploitation (5). The spotted wobbegong may also be threatened by habitat degradation, as estuaries and seagrass beds may be important nursery areas for this species (4), which could be impacted by coastal developments and pollution.

The spotted wobbegong is assessed as Vulnerable in New South Wales, Australia, however no management plan is yet in place for this population, and there are apparently no specific conservation measures in place in any of the Australian states (5). It may gain some level of protection from the protected areas being designated for grey nurse sharks in New South Wales, and it occurs in several Marine Protected Areas throughout its range (5). An in-possession limit of two wobbegong sharks per person was recently introduced for recreational fisheries, and it is hoped that this may help lessen the impact of recreational fishing practices (4). It has been suggested that further information on the biology, ecology and status of the species is required to enable the development of suitable management policies (4) (5).

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  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)