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20-Foot Basking Shark Caught In Australia Is A Rare Boon For Scientists

06/23/2015 03:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Fishermen in Australia didn't intend to haul in a massive basking shark on Sunday, but scientists around the world may soon be glad they did.

The shark, which measures more than 20 feet long and weighs three tons, belongs to a species that's rarely seen in the Southern hemisphere. Museum Victoria, which acquired the shark after it was accidentally reeled in by a fishing trawler in the western Bass Strait, says it's only encountered three basking shark specimens in the last 160 years. The shark was dead when the fishermen recovered it, Museum Victoria noted on Facebook.

The last recorded basking shark capture was in the 1930s, when one was found at Lakes Entrance in the state of Victoria, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

basking shark

The museum is already fielding requests for samples from, images of and data about the shark from scientists around the world. While landing the shark was a rather unfortunate accident, experts say scientists are ready to make the best of the situation.

"These rare encounters can provide many of the missing pieces of knowledge that help broader conservation and biological research," Martin Gomon, senior curator of ichthyology at Museum Victoria, said in a statement.

Researchers took tissue and vertebrae samples, and examined the contents of the shark's stomach in an effort to learn more about its diet, genetics and relationship to basking sharks found in the Northern hemisphere.

Story continues after photos.

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Although the basking shark the fishermen caught looks huge, they can grow even bigger -- up to almost 40 feet, according to Museum Victoria collections manager Dianne Bray.

"It's the second-largest living fish," Bray told the ABC. The whale shark is the largest.

Despite their size, basking sharks are gentle giants. Rather than actively hunt for their food, the sharks are filter feeders. They just open their gaping jaws and trawl the ocean for plankton and jellyfish. The sharks' jaws are weak compared to those of their apex predator cousins, and are lined with tiny teeth.

Basking sharks don't have many natural predators, but they've recently become prized for their large fins, which some East Asian cultures believe have medicinal benefits.

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