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Carolina Hammerhead Shark, Newly Named Species, Discovered By Accident

11/08/2013 03:23 pm ET | Updated Nov 10, 2013

Sometimes, finding a previously unknown species is a result of a happy accident. At least that was the case with the recent discovery of the Carolina hammerhead shark.

Joe Quattro of the University of South Carolina was studying fish in the state's four major river basins several years ago when he started researching shark pups. Baby sharks of several species -- including hammerheads -- spend their first year of life in the waters near the point where the South Carolina rivers and Atlantic Ocean meet.

While Quattro and his team were looking into the hammerheads, they noticed something peculiar: Among the species of scalloped hammerhead sharks they were collecting, they found two distinct genetic signatures.

So Quattro dug a little deeper and discovered that another researcher had once described a scalloped hammerhead that had 10 fewer vertebrates than other sharks of its species, according to a statement released by the university.

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The tally of vertebrae turned out to be the key difference between the common scalloped hammerhead and the new species, previously unknown to science. By outward appearance alone, the Carolina hammerhead and the scalloped variety appear to be identical.

Though Quattro first revealed his suspicion that the specific hammerhead constituted a new species in the journal Marine Biology in 2006, it wasn't until recently that the team was able to give a name to the new creature.

After collecting and analyzing 54 specimens in South Carolina's coastal waters, the team published the first description of Sphyrna gilberti -- commonly called the Carolina hammerhead shark -- in peer-reviewed journal Zootaxa.

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