Metro

State biologist ‘confident’ great white shark was responsible for Truro attack

William Lytton was attacked off a Truro beach earlier this month.
Steven Senne/Associated Press
William Lytton was attacked off a Truro beach earlier this month.

State shark expert Greg Skomal confirmed for the first time Friday that the species of shark that attacked a swimmer off a Truro beach earlier this month was a great white.

Skomal, program manager and senior scientist with the Division of Marine Fisheries, said he spoke with William Lytton, 61, by phone Friday afternoon to find out more about the incident so he could input data into an international database for shark attacks.

He said based on information from Lytton, the doctors at Tufts Medical Center in Boston who treated his extensive wounds, and fragments of teeth extracted from the victim’s leg during surgery, it became clear that a white shark was involved in the attack.

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“I’m confident that it was a white shark,” Skomal said in a telephone interview with the Globe. “The heavy presence of white sharks off Cape Cod and the extent of the wounds gave me a lot of confidence it was a white shark, but being able to examine tooth fragments that were serrated provides for me that 100 percent confidence level.”

Shark teeth fragments pulled from William Lytton's wounds.
Tufts Medical Center
Shark teeth fragments pulled from William Lytton's wounds.

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On Aug. 15, Lytton was swimming near Longnook Beach in roughly 8 feet of water when he suddenly felt something clamp down on his leg.

In his first interview about the attack with the Associated Press this week, Lytton, a neurologist from New York, said he managed to escape the predator’s jaws by punching it in the gills, a move he recalled from nature documentaries.

Once free, Lytton swam to shore, where he was then carried up the dunes by volunteers who had come to his aid. He was then medflighted to Tufts Medical Center.

While there, Lytton “was placed into a two-day coma, underwent six surgeries, and had nearly 12 pints of blood pumped into him,” the AP reported.

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Lytton remains at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital, where he’s recuperating from the attack.

A surgeon who operated on Lytton told the Globe on Thursday that it “was a miracle’’ he was not more seriously injured.

Dr. Scott Ryan, chief of orthopedic trauma surgery at Tufts Medical Center, said the shark missed major nerves by a few millimeters. Two fragments of shark teeth that were close to the bone were taken from Lytton’s leg, doctors said.

Skomal had been waiting to talk to Lytton about the details of the attack, and to examine his wounds, but wanted to give him time to recover.

After Lytton did several media interviews this week, a clearer picture of what transpired began to emerge. Skomal felt speaking by phone and examining the pictures of tooth fragments was enough evidence to make his assessment.

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“It really confirms what I was thinking all along,” he said, “and that’s that a white shark was the perpetrator.”

Skomal said doctors from Tufts Medical Center are sending him the tooth fragments, which he plans to examine more thoroughly.

He said by trying to measure the pieces of shark teeth, experts can get a better sense of how large the white shark that attacked Lytton may have been.

“We are trying to figure that out as well,” he said. “It will be very telling of the size of the animal.”

Skomal said Lytton was “incredibly candid and very personable” during their telephone conversation Friday afternoon, something he appreciated given what the victim went through.

“As a doctor himself, it was also refreshing,” he said. “He had a very intellectual approach to it. It was a great opportunity.”

While they spoke, Skomal filled out a questionnaire to submit to the International Shark Attack File, “the only scientifically generated database that documents and monitors shark attacks on a global basis.”

“The information will be analyzed by multiple researchers to learn about what might be happening here, what may have precipitated this, and potentially ways to avoid it,” he said.

In the meantime, with the busy Labor Day weekend ahead, and no shortage of great white sharks along the Cape Cod coastline, Skomal reiterated a message experts have been trying to convey for years.

“Be vigilant, stay in shallow water, and don’t swim near seals, and don’t be alone,” Skomal said, a message that echoed one delivered by an Orleans official this week on Facebook.

He added: “Pay attention to public safety officials.”

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.