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Leopard Shark (Triakis semifasciata) and Spotted Gully Shark (T. megalopterus) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Leopard Shark (Triakis semifasciata) and Spotted Gully Shark (T. megalopterus) Fact Sheet

Taxonomy and Nomenclature


  • Family Triakidae: leopard shark, smoothhounds, hound sharks, smooth dogfishes, “gummy shark” (Castro 2011, except as noted)
    • Small to medium-sized sharks; usually 1 m to less than 2 m (about 3-6 ft) in length
    • Slender bodies
    • Wedge-shaped snout (Compagno 2003)
    • Found in temperature and tropical coastal waters (Soekoe 2016)
    • Live in shallow to moderately deep water over continental shelves
    • Young develop inside the female and are born; most species are placental
    • Harmless to humans (Compagno 2003)
    • Some species are important to small-scale, artisanal fisheries
    • As of 2011, there were 9 genera and more than 40 species in this taxonomic family
      • Seven species live in South Africa (Ebert and van Hees 2015)
  • Genus Triakis
    • There are five, possibly six species, in this genus (Castro 2011; ITIS 2017)
    • The leopard shark is the only member of Triakis found in North America (Castro 2011)


  • Genus: Triakis (Love 1996; Ebert 2003; Castro 2011)
    • From the Greek triacis, tri, meaning “three,” and acis (akis), meaning “pointed” or “sharp”
      • Alludes to this shark’s 3-pointed teeth
  • Species: T. semifasciata (Castro 2011)
    • Semifasciata is from the Latin semi and fasciata, meaning “half-banded”
      • Alludes to the dark bands or “saddles” appearing on the top (dorsal) half of this species’ body
  • Species: T. megalopterus (Smith 1849)
    • Megalopterus is from the Greek megas, meaning “large,” and pteron, meaning “fin” or “wing” (Webster’s dictionary)


  • Leopard shark (Compagno 2003; Castro 2011; Pietsch et al. 2012)
    • Triakis californicus or californica (Gray, 1851)
      • First proposed by Gray (1851) but without a description—invalid (Ebert 2003)
    • Mustelus felis (Ayres, 1854)
    • Triakis semifasciata originally described as Triakis semifasciatum (Girard, 1855)
  • Spotted gully shark
    • Mustelus megalopterus (Smith 1849)
    • Includes Mustelus nigropunctatus (Smith, 1952) and M. natalensis (Steindachner, 1866) (Compagno 2003)

Common names

  • Triakis semifasciata (Castro 2011)
    • “Leopard shark” (English)
      •  Alludes this shark’s dark spots and markings
    • “Leopardo,” “tiburón leopardo” (Spanish)
  • Triakis megalopterus
    • “Spotted gully shark,” “sharptooth houndshark” (English)
    • “Spikkel sloothaai” (Afrikaans) (Compagno 1986)

Other colloquial or local names

  • Leopard shark
    • “Tiger shark” or “catshark” (Smith 2001; Ebert 2003)

Evolutionary History

Fossil history and evolutionary relationships

  • In southern California, fossil leopard sharks have been found in deposits over one million years old (Love 1996)
    • Remains have been widely found in Native American middens (Love 1996)

Closest known extant relatives (López et al. 2006; A. Lopez, personal communication)

  • Leopard shark
    • Triakis scyllium, banded houndshark
  • Spotted gully shark
    • Less certainty than for leopard shark; likely Scylliogaleus quecketti, flapnose houndshark, and Mustelus spp.

Cultural History

Note: This information describes sharks in a general sense and is not specific to Triakis species.


Source: Crawford (2008) throughout, except as noted

Culture, folklore, and history

  • Pacific Islanders respected the shark for its power and majesty over the ocean realm
    • Believed sharks had spiritual powers; commonly, sharks mythologized to be embodiments of ancestors—might guide fishermen back to safe harbor (Solomon Islands)
    • Shark gods, such as Kauhuhu (Polynesia) and Ka’ahupahau (Hawaii)
    • Some wars fought over sharks (Marshall Islands) if one tribe perceived disrespect towards to the sacred shark
    • Practices of “shark calling,” where men would take a canoe to sea, use a rattle to attract a shark, and wrestle and club the shark
    • Shark-man myths; representative of two sides of human nature
  • Western culture sensationalizes shark encounters
  • “In Europe and the English-speaking parts of the world, sharks have been vilified as omens of evil, harbingers of bad luck, monsters and satanic creatures…” (Crawford 2008)
  • European tradition has demonized sharks as far back as Greek mythology
  • Fictional and nonfictional accounts of sharks attacking victims of shipwrecks
  • 19th century whaling crews resented sharks, which fed on whales that the sailors hunted and processed alongside their ships


Television and film

  • TV series and nature documentaries
  • Film
    • Sharknado (2013)
      • Fantasy film in which storms transport vicious sharks to the streets of Los Angeles
    • Open Water (2003)
      • Based on a true story and more “true to life” than nearly all shark films; honeymooners spend 18 hours at sea after being left behind by dive boat
    • Deep Blue Sea (1999)
      • Scientists boosts the brain power of mako sharks in her quest to cure Alzheimer’s; includes uncommon “shark wrangler” character
    • Jaws of Death (1976)
      • Man given the ability to charm sharks; defends sharks against fishers, unscrupulous scientist, and greedy businessmen
    • Jaws (1975) and sequels (1978, 1983, 1987)
      • Great film that evoked people’s deep fears and an extraordinary public response, including the killing of many sharks by fishers



Kingdom: Animalia

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Chondrichthyes - cartilaginous fishes (sharks, rays, skates, and chimeras)

Subclass: Elasmobranchii - elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, skates)

Order: Carcharhiniformes - ground sharks

Family: Triakidae (Gray, 1851) - houndsharks, smoothhound sharks, smooth dogfish sharks, gummy sharks, tope sharks, whiskery sharks

Genus: Triakis (Müller and Henle, 1838) - leopard and houndsharks

Species: Triakis semifasciata (Girard, 1855) - leopard shark
Species: Triakis megalopterus (Smith, 1839) - spotted gully shark, sharptooth houndshark

Sources: Compagno (2003); Castro (2011); Integrated Taxonomic Information System (2017)

Early Illustration

An 1849 illustration of a spotted gully shark; the species name here is Mustelus megalopterus

A 19th century illustration of a spotted gully shark (with mouth detail below).

"Mustelus megalopterus." Plate 2 in Andrew Smith's 1849 book, Illustrations of the zoology of South Africa.

Image credit: Made available by the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Public domain.

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