Herbsts nurse shark

Odontaspis ferox

Herbsts Nurse Shark

Herbsts nurse sharks are a rarely encountered species that looks very similar to the grey nurse shark. Grey nurse sharks are found in shallower inshore waters, while Herbsts nurse sharks are generally found at depths of 150–600 m off the NSW coast. The species has a wide but irregular distribution throughout the warm temperate and tropical waters of the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, and the Mediterranean Sea. In Australasia, they have been recorded off NSW, eastern Victoria, north-western Australia, New Zealand and the Kermadec Islands.

The Herbsts nurse shark is named locally after the first collector of the species in Australia.

Internationally, its names include small-toothed sand tiger shark and bumpy-tail ragged-tooth shark.

Herbsts nurse sharks are listed as a protected fish in NSW under the Fisheries Management Act 1994. Heavy penalties apply for taking or possessing them.


Herbsts nurse sharks are large, bulky sharks with a long, conical snout. They are medium to

dark grey above, fading to white on the belly.

Juveniles may have dusky margins and tips on both dorsal fins and the tail fin, sometimes with darker spots scattered on the flanks. The first dorsal fin is bigger than both the second dorsal fin and the anal fin, a feature that distinguishes them from grey nurse sharks, which have two dorsal fins of similar size.

Herbsts nurse sharks can also be distinguished from grey nurse sharks by their teeth. Herbsts nurse sharks have slender fang-like teeth with two or three pairs of small lateral cusplets near the base of each tooth, whereas grey nurse sharks have a single pair of lateral cusplets on each tooth.

The origin of the Herbsts nurse shark’s first dorsal fin is over the free rear end of pectorals, and the front of the second dorsal fin is above the back of the pelvic fins. A notch is present immediately in front of the tail.

Habitat and ecology

  • Herbsts nurse sharks usually live in relatively deep water on insular and continental shelves and upper slopes, and around seamounts. They have been caught off NSW in depths up to 850 m, and there are also records of the species from open waters of the Indian Ocean.
  • Around oceanic islands such as Cocos- Keeling and the Kermadecs, individuals are occasionally seen by divers in depths less than 30 m at sites adjacent to deepwater  drop-  offs.
  • The Herbsts nurse shark is a large shark growing to about 4.5 m in length and over 700 kg in weight.
  • Herbsts nurse sharks are opportunistic carnivores, consuming squid, octopus, crustaceans and small bony fish.
  • Little is known about reproduction in the species. Pups are born at about 100 cm in length and become sexually mature at around 250 cm (males) and 350 cm (females). No information is known on the number of pups in a litter but it is likely that only one or two are produced after a 1–2 year gestation.
  • They have not been implicated in attacks on humans.
  • Why are Herbsts nurse sharks protected?

  • The endangered grey nurse shark may be misidentified as the Herbsts nurse shark, so the protection of both species will assist in the recovery of grey nurse sharks.
  • Herbsts nurse sharks almost certainly have low fecundity making them susceptible to depletion by commercial fishing. The species is taken as incidental by-catch on the outer continental shelf and continental slope by commercial trawlers.
  • Herbsts nurse shark numbers have significantly declined in the NSW south-east trawl grounds. NSW Fisheries research surveys caught 30 individuals between 1975 and 1985, but only five individuals during the following 10 years.

What conservation actions are underway?

  • Maintaining bans on landing Herbsts nurse sharks in NSW waters and encouraging complementary arrangements in other waters.
  • Educating fishers on the best ways to identify and return any live incidentally caught Herbsts nurse sharks to the water.

Legal implications

Taking or possessing Herbsts nurse sharks (or any other species of protected fish) is an offence and heavy penalties apply. For corporations these penalties can include fines of up to $55 000 while individuals can face fines of up to 11 000 and up to 3 months in prison.

Bibliography and further reading

Bonfil R 1995, ‘Is the ragged-tooth shark cosmopolitan? First record from the western North Atlantic’, Journal of Fish Biology, 47:341–4.

Francis MP 1993, ‘Checklist of the coastal fishes of Lord Howe, Norfolk, and Kermadec Islands, Southwest Pacific Ocean’, Pacific Science 47, No. 2: 136–70.

Graham KJ, Wood BR & Andrew NL 1997, ‘The 1996–97 survey of upper slope trawling grounds between Sydney and Gabo Island (and comparisons with the 1976–77 survey)’, Kapala Cruise Report No. 117, NSW Fisheries, Cronulla, Australia.

Last PR & Stevens JD 1994, Sharks and rays of Australia, CSIRO, Melbourne, Australia, 513 pp.

Stewart A 1997, ‘Toothy sand tiger’, Seafood New Zealand, pp. 91–2.

For further information

For more information on general fishing regulations check with your local fisheries office or visit  www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/fisheries

To contact your local NSW DPI Fisheries Office visit https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/contact-us/contact-a-dpi-fisheries-officer or phone 1300 550 474.