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A shark that walks! Discovery is a good sign for Indonesia

Image: Walking shark
The newly described shark species, Hemiscyllium halmahera, uses its fins to "walk" across the ocean floor.Mark Erdmann / Conservation International

Just watching a shark that uses its fins to walk across the ocean floor is cool enough, but the fact that one more "walking" species has been discovered is even cooler for conservationists.

"This is the third walking shark species to be described from eastern Indonesia in the past six years, which highlights our tremendous shark and ray biodiversity," Indonesia's foremost shark expert, known by the single name Fahmi, said in a news release from Conservation International. "We now know that six of the nine known walking shark species occur in Indonesian waters, and these animals are diver favorites with excellent potential to help grow our marine tourism industry."

The latest species of walking shark was first photographed by divers in 2008, and has now been described as a new species in the journal Aqua. It's known as the epaulette (long-tailed carpet) shark, or Hemiscyllium halmahera. Two specimens were caught by scientists from the Western Australian Museum and Conservation International in Indonesia's Maluku Islands (also known as the Moluccas or the Spice Islands). The species name refers to Halmahera, the largest island in the Malukus.

Walking sharks uses their pectoral and pelvic fins to move across the sea bottom while foraging at night for small fishes and invertebrates. H. halmahera is distinguished from other walkers by the distinctive pattern of brown spots on its head. 

Indonesia is home to at least 218 species of sharks and rays. In a blog post, Conservation International's Mark Erdmann marveled at how much progress Indonesia has made in protecting its native sharks. "If you asked me a year ago about the long-term future of shark populations in Indonesia, I probably would have responded: 'Bleak.'"

Indonesia has been the world leader in the export of dried shark fins and other products from the animal group that includes sharks as well as rays and skates, known as elasmobranches. But over the past year, the Indian Ocean country has come to appreciate that the creatures are worth more alive than dead. 

"We now know, for instance, that a living manta ray is worth up to $1.9 million to our economy over the course of its lifetime, compared to a value of only $40 to $200 for its meat and gill rakers," said Agus Dermawan, director of the Marine Conservation Directorate at the Indonesian Ministry of Marine Affairs and Fisheries.

A recent study showed that Indonesia ranks second globally as a manta tourism destination, with an estimated direct economic benefit of more than $15 million to the country's economy annually.

To preserve marine biodiversity — and keep the tourist dollars coming in — new sanctuaries for sharks and rays are being created. The Indonesian government also has pledged new regulations to comply with the CITES treaty on species protection.

Update for 2:15 p.m. ET Aug. 30: On the "Why Evolution Is True" blog, Matthew Cobb says the shark's walking style looks a lot like the gait of a typical tetrapod. "So this suggests that the neuronal control of the way that you run (your right arm moves with your left leg, and your left arm moves with your right leg – try it) goes waaaayyyy back even beyond our fishy ancestors, to the time before the evolution of bone," he writes. "Another alternative is that this is convergent evolution — if you are going to 'walk,' the alternate gait is the best way of doing it.  Today’s question: How could we test between these two hypotheses?"

More about sharks:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.