News » Iconic specimen: A fish of a life time

Iconic specimen: A fish of a life time

By: Zinzi Somana, Siphamandla Mceleli & Nkosinathi Mazungula (SAIAB Collections staff)

The National Research Foundation’s South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (NRF-SAIAB) based in Makhanda, a small rural town in the Eastern Cape, is home to the National Fish Collection. The National Fish Collection represents the largest collection of African fishes in the Continent and is the most comprehensive collection of southern African fishes in the world. The collection comprises over 127 550 lots and more than 1 012 552 specimens, representing over 5 987 species of marine, freshwater and estuarine fishes from 163 countries worldwide. The specimens held in our collections reflect NRF-SAIAB’s aquatic research over the past 50 years and span over 140 years of collecting with records revealing the oldest specimen dating back to 1880.

Unique to the National Fish Collection, NRF-SAIAB has the only record and specimen of the albino great white shark, Carcharodon carcharias (SAIAB 5000). The white shark displaying albinism, an extremely rare recessive condition, which means it lost all the pigment in its skin, was caught in 1996 in the Eastern Cape, off Boknes by Els and donated to NRF-SAIAB in 1997. Normally, great white sharks have a greyish-black dorsal surface and pale to white ventral surface. This specific body colorations act as a protective camouflage, but the specimen at NRF-SAIAB is completely white. This record is iconic as albino fish are scarce. They generally struggle to survive in the absence of their protective camouflage and can’t hunt effectively, and get easily preyed upon by predators.

Generally, great white sharks measure between 109-165 cm when they are born and our specimen is 153 centimeters, which suggest this a baby great white shark. Sharks don’t show parental care; pups fend for themselves from the moment they are born. They live up to 70 years but this white shark did not have a chance in the world to survive. NRF-SAIAB is very fortunate to have this specimen, that in our humble opinion, represents a fish of a lifetime, in our collection. The specimen has an associated tissue sample logged in the Aquatic Biobank of NRF-SAIAB.

This pup was voted the first runner-up as the most iconic specimen in the photographic competition of the Natural Science Collections Facility (NSCF) Virtual Forum 2021. 

This article was first published in the NSCF's September publication ‘Why our collections matter – Showcase No. 3 Iconic, Extinct & Historically Important Specimens’ – pages 27 – 28: (https://nscf.org.za/showcase-no-3-iconic-extinct-historically-important-specimens/#dflip-df_3602/27/)