Pyjama sharks got their name because they seem like they’re wearing striped pyjamas. Thanks to the fascinating documentary, My Octopus Teacher, pyjama sharks are now well-known. They’re shy, nocturnal, and endemic to South African waters, where they live in the great African kelp forest and consume octopus.
Pyjama sharks are catsharks with thick dark stripes running down the back and flanks parallel to each other. They also feature a short, blunt head with little nasal barbels, as well as two small dorsal fins that are far back on the body. They are only found in South Africa and are modest at an average of 1.1 m.
Pyjama sharks are mostly nocturnal, hunting at night and sleeping during the day in caves and crevices. While many sharks use their sawing dentition to cut through prey, pyjama sharks utilize a spinning motion similar to a crocodile’s ‘death roll’ to shock, pull, and dismember their prey.
Pyjama sharks are oviparous, which means they reproduce by laying eggs that are supported by a yolk sac and left on the seafloor unattended. Long, twisted tendrils entangle themselves in rocks and kelp, holding the eggs in place. A female can lay two eggs at a time and generate eggs throughout the year. After five months or more, the eggs will hatch, producing pups that are just 15 cm long. At roughly 0.8 m in length, pyjama sharks achieve maturity.
Pyjama sharks are found in kelp beds, rocky bottoms, and caves from the intertidal zone to depths of roughly 100 meters in temperate South African coastal waters.
On the rocky reef, pyjama sharks eat crustaceans (for example, crabs). They also eat tiny fish like anchovies and hakes, as well as other sharks’ egg cases. As widely portrayed in the video My Octopus Teacher, they will aggressively chase octopuses. Although they are usually nocturnal, they will hunt for prey during the day, such as during Cape Hope squid spawning aggregations.
Threats of the Pyjama Shark
Overfishing is the biggest threat to pyjama sharks. Although the pyjama shark is not a target of any commercial or recreational fisheries, it is caught as bycatch in longline, gillnet, beach seine, and trawl operations. When sharks are caught, they are usually dumped, but they are also subjected to persecution; they are regularly murdered before being discarded since they are thought to be a nuisance for breaking gear or stealing seafood. They’re sometimes hunted for the aquarium trade as well. The IUCN classifies the pyjama shark as Least Concern because its population is thought to be rising. In South Africa, however, it was deemed a restricted commercial line species in 2005.
Pyjama sharks are cautious and nocturnal, thus they rarely come into contact with humans. Apart from harassment during fishing activities, many snorkelers and divers pursue them out for their spectacular appearance, however, they are usually very wary.