The term carpet shark is used to refer to any one of more than 30 species of shark in the order Orectolobiformes that have colorful, ornate and mottled skin patterns that are said to resemble carpets. Species of carpet shark can be small or very large, lay eggs or give birth to live young, and are typically bottom feeders that prefer to consume crustaceans or mollusks.
A representative carpet shark species will have dorsal fins, a small mouth in front of its eyes, no spine, small gill slits and distinctive barbels or sensory organs hanging near the nostrils or throat. Although they are found all over the world, the Indo-Pacific and Australian regions have the greatest concentration of carpet shark species. According to existing fossil records, carpet sharks first emerged in the late Jurassic period and are generally not considered to be aggressive toward humans.
Some carpet shark species are ornate and colorful including the zebra, ornate wobbegong and the necklace. The zebra shark rests on the ocean floor during the day, hunts coral reefs at night for small fish and crustaceans and has a pale blue green body covered with dark spots and ridges. The ornate wobbegong is a smaller carpet shark with a maximum length of 3.8 feet (1.1 meters) that lives in the western Pacific Ocean and is colored like sand with black, brown, orange and white variegated spots and saddles. The necklace carpet shark found in Australian waters is thin and tubular with large oval eyes, a dark black collar or necklace and white and dark brown spots.
The whale shark is arguably to most well known carpet shark and is considered to be the world’s largest fish with an average length of 39 feet (12 meters). It is a filter feeder that slowly roams the open sea consuming plankton and occasionally small fish with a body that is covered in small yellow and white dots and stripes. Despite the whale shark’s intimidating size, the species has a reputation as a gentle giant that is curious about and playful with human divers. The species is considered to be threatened and is easy to hunt because it moves slowly and will come to surface to feed. Attempts to breed this carpet shark species in captivity have proved difficult, but several specimens remain on display in aquariums in Japan, China and the United States.
Nurse sharks are also members of the Orectolobiformes order. This shark is a bottom dweller but is commonly found in shallow water at a depth of approximately 3.2 feet (one meter). Nurse sharks typically rest in groups in crevices during the day and hunt at night for crustaceans, mollusks, snakes and stingrays. Young nurse sharks are sometimes sold to home aquarium enthusiasts, but this practice has been criticized because the shark will eventually outgrow any home tank and should not be released into the ocean.