Wobbegong is the common name given to the 12 species (in 3 genera) of Carpet sharks in the family Orectolobidae. They are found in warm, temperate and tropical continental waters of the western Pacific Ocean and eastern Indian Ocean, primarily around Australia and Indonesia, although one species, the Japanese wobbegong, can be fund as far north as Japan. Wobbegongs are bottom-dwelling sharks, so they spend much of their time resting on the sea floor or on rocky or coral reefs from the intertidal to greater than 360 feet.
The word “wobbegong” is believed to come from an Australian Aboriginal language, meaning “shaggy beard”, referring to the growths around the mouth of the shark of the western Pacific.
Wobbegongs have a very distinctive, flattened appearance, and are well camouflaged with a symmetrical pattern of bold markings which resembles a carpet. Because of this striking pattern, Wobbegongs and their close relatives are often referred to as Carpet sharks. The camouflage is improved by the presence of small weed-like whisker lobes surrounding the wobbegong’s jaw, which help to camouflage it and act as sensory barbs. They have long barbels and short mouths well in front of the eyes and almost at the very front of the short snout. The jaws are very heavy. There are two rows of sharp and enlarged fang-like teeth in the upper jaw. There are three rows in the lower jaw. There are nasoral grooves, circumnarial grooves and flaps, and symphysial grooves. The spiracles are larger than the upward-facing eyes. There are two spineless dorsal fins and an anal fin. The origin of the first dorsal fin is over the pelvic fin bases.
Wobbegongs are ovoviviparous, having large litters of 20 or more pups.
Wobbegongs make use of their relative invisibility from their patterns and dermal lobes around their head to hide among rocks and catch smaller fish which swim too close, typical of ambush predators. They are powerful seabed predators. They primarily prey on bottom-dwelling animals such as crabs, fish, lobsters and even octopi. They are high on the RSI, sucking in and impaling prey on their large teeth. They use their paired fins to crawl around on the bottom and even out of water. Some have the ability to remain out of water for long periods of time. Wobbegongs are largely nocturnal and, due to their slow metabolism, do not have to feed as often as other sharks.
They are potentially dangerous to humans if provoked, but generally aren’t dangerous. Their bite is particularly hazardous. They have many small but sharp teeth and their bite can be severe. There have been some reports of some wobbegongs who have attacked swimmers, snorkelers and SCUBA divers who inadvertently come close to them. The Australian Shark Attack File contains more than 50 records of unprovoked attacks by wobbegongs, and the International Shark Attack File 28 records; none of them fatal. Wobbegongs have also bitten surfers. Wobbegongs are very flexible and can easily bite a hand, while a person is holding onto their tail. They can bite through a wetsuit. They have been known to hang on and they can be very difficult to remove.
Some are important to fisheries. Wobbegong skin is beautiful, therefore valuable and can be used to make leather.
Although most wobbegong species are unsuitable for home aquaria due to their large adult size, this has not stopped some of the larger species from being sold in the aquarium trade, in which they are then kept and bread in aquaria. Small wobbegong species, such as the Tasselled wobbegong and Ward’s wobbegong, are targeted by home aquarists because they are an appropriate size and are lethargic, enabling them to be accommodated within the limited space of home aquaria, although they will consume tankmates, even quite large ones. We hope this fad will die down.
The 12 living species of wobbegong, in three genera, are:
Genus Eucrossorhinus– Regan, 1908
Genus Orectolobus– Bonaparte, 1834
Genus Sutorectus– Whitley, 1939
Fossil genera include:
Eometlaouia– Noubhani & Cappetta, 2002