The Verge Review of Animals: sharks in Las Vegas

This column is part of a series where Verge staffers post highly subjective reviews of animals. Up until now, we’ve written about animals without telling you whether they suck or rule. We are now rectifying this oversight.

It’s well-known that you have to be a shark to make it in Vegas, and at CES every hotel and convention hall is swimming with them. Gadgets are their chum, sending them into a frenzy of pitching, buying, and partying for one long week.

I’m using this terrible extended metaphor to illustrate how being at CES is a little bit like being in an aquarium made for a particular breed of consumer tech monster. We’re diving with sharks out here, dear Verge reader. So we decided to go to an aquarium to meet actual sharks. Luckily, there’s one called the Shark Reef right here at Mandalay Bay.

Cue Jaws theme.

The thresher shark

Unlike so much at CES, the thresher shark is an example of uncomplicated, effective design that gets straight to the point. The shark is named for its oversized tail (below), with a lengthy upper tail fin that looks like a scythe and accounts for about half of the fish’s 20-foot-long body.

This tail has two features. The first is that it makes the thresher shark look super cool — most sharks are already sleek killing machines, and the thresher’s dramatic lines lend an elegant, graceful air. The second is more practical; the thresher shark can use its tail as a whip to stun prey before eating it.

The thresher shark has refined taste to match its good looks: stunning its prey first makes this shark one of the few fish to actually prepare its food ahead of meals. And although the thresher is a solitary animal that prefers to chill alone, it’s also one of the only sharks that ever breaches, showing off to humans by jumping out of the water.

If the thresher shark has a flaw, it’s that it’s almost too attractive. The unique tail makes it a prime target for fishing, often for use in shark-fin soup, and all three species are listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN. But apart from the predictable interference by humans, threshers are well-designed, stylish creatures that rank among the most sophisticated predators of the deep.

9.3

thresher shark

The green sawfish

The green sawfish (below) isn’t technically a shark — it’s part of the same order as skates and rays — but it looks a whole lot like one and I’ve already been covering hoverboards that don’t hover this week so just give this one to me, please. [Ed. note: OH FINE] Also, there is such a thing as sawsharks, too — they’re just smaller and don’t happen to be at Mandalay Bay.

Anyway.

Like the thresher shark, the green sawfish has a distinctively badass method of attack. Its head is dominated by a gigantic teeth-studded rostrum, or snout, that has the same dangerous, rough-and-ready feel as Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. The sawfish’s elongated weapon helps stun fish and dig up tasty crustaceans from the sea bed. It’s high-tech, too — the rostrum has electrosensitive pores that help detect unsuspecting future meals, which counteracts the sawfish’s poor vision.

Unfortunately for the sawfish, its aggressive design can work against it — the awkwardly-shaped fish gets tangled in nets very easily, even though people don’t usually try to catch it. This has contributed to a dramatic downturn in its population over recent decades, and it’s now considered Critically Endangered. As such, while I appreciate the sawfish’s innovative hardware, I have to dock it a few points for lack of foresight.

7.4

sawfish

The bowmouth guitarfish

The bowmouth guitarfish is another weird one. Some scientists think of it as the "missing link" between sharks and ray, two distinct kinds of cartilaginous fish that are actually closely related. Even though it has a somewhat flattened appearance and big pectoral fins like a ray, it actually propels itself with its powerful tail just like a shark. It’s a little bit of a lonely mutant among its brethren, like a Windows tablet that also runs Android.

As a bottomfeeder, it’s not unlike a businessman who glides aimlessly from one Vegas buffet to the next. But rather than cocktail shrimp, this sharp uses its strong jaws to catch and crush small crustaceans, bony fish, and molluscs. That menu can mainly be found in the shallow, muddy water the bowmouth likes to live in.

This fish is also exotic, thriving in the waters of the Pacific. However, because of fishers who hunt it for its fins and meat, the bowmouth is a vulnerable species. Which is a shame. The ocean is weirder and all the more wonderful for its presence.

8.2

sand tiger shark

The sand tiger shark

The first thing you notice about the sand tiger shark (above) is its teeth — it has so many it can’t actually close its mouth. That’s a feature, not a bug. As one might guess from their name, Sand Tigers are formidable hunters. Smaller sharks in the species tend to feed on bottomfeeders, while larger ones are known to eat fish that can be up to half their size.

Sand tigers are stealthy hunters, going after its prey at night, often in groups. One of the best evolutionary features it’s developed is its ability to swallow air to maintain buoyancy without needing to swim. That way it can hunt without ever needing to telegraphing its presence. That’s innovation you don’t often see even at CES.

All of this sounds very scary, and very Vegas-appropriate. The sand tiger knows what it wants and it gets results. It’s a sleek killing machine. But sand tigers aren’t actually dangerous to humans; their mouths are too small to do much damage to the average person. And the sharks are fairly docile most often — they have no problem being around people so long as they’re not bothered. Top marks, sand tiger shark.

10

phillip the penguin fridge

Phillip the emperor penguin

This horrifying embalmed emperor penguin (above), affectionately christened "Phillip" by Kwame, may seem like an unusual inclusion in an article about sharks. But it was an even more unusual inclusion in an exhibition about "sea monsters," frankly, and it was too disturbing not to share.

I don’t know why the Mandalay Bay curators thought it would be a good idea to end everyone’s visits by showing them what it looks like when you cut a fridge-like door into the front of a penguin. I do know that Phillip the penguin’s posthumous existence plunges new depths of humiliation and ignominy, and although I have nothing against emperor penguins as a species, this particular penguin really drew the short straw.

0.3

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