The Horn Shark is a species of bullhead shark, family Heterodontidae. Horn sharks are harmless unless harassed, and are readily maintained in captivity. They are not targeted by either commercial or recreational fisheries, though small numbers are caught as bycatch. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) does not yet have enough information to determine the horn shark's conservation status. It faces few threats off the coast of the United States.
Like other bullhead sharks, the horn shark has a short, wide head with a blunt snout and prominent supraorbital ridges over the eyes. The horn shark's supraorbital ridges are low and terminate abruptly; the space between them on top of the head is deeply concave. Each eye lacks a nictating membrane and is followed by a tiny spiracle. The nostrils are split into inflow and outflow openings by a long flap that reaches the mouth. The inflow openings are encircled by a groove, while another groove connects the outflow openings to the mouth. The mouth is small and curved, with prominent furrows at the corners. There are 19–26 tooth rows in the upper jaw and 18–29 tooth rows in the lower jaw. The teeth at the front of the jaws are small and pointed, with a central cusp flanked by a pair of lateral cusplets; those at the sides of the jaws are much larger, elongated lengthwise, and molar-like.
The body is cylindrical, with two high, somewhat falcate (sickle-shaped) dorsal fins bearing stout spines at the front. The fin spines of reef-dwelling horn sharks are shorter than those living in algal habitats, as their spines become worn down on rocks from the sharks' movements. The first dorsal fin originates over the bases of the large pectoral fins, while the second dorsal fin originates slightly anterior to the free rear tips of the pelvic fins. The caudal fin has a short lower lobe and a long, broad upper lobe with a strong notch near the tip. The horn shark's dermal denticles are small and smooth, numbering some 200/cm2 on the back in adults. The dorsal coloration consists of various shades of gray or brown with many small dark spots, though these may be absent in older sharks; the underside is yellowish. There is a dark patch of small spots below the eye.
As they mature, horn sharks shift into shallower water and their preferred habitat becomes structurally complex rocky reefs or algae beds. This strongly benthic species seldom ventures more than 2 m (6.6 ft) above the substrate. The relative abundances of the horn shark and the swellshark (Centroscyllim ventriosum), which shares the same habitat, are negatively correlated, because horn sharks favor water over 20 °C (70°F) while swellsharks are more tolerant of cold.
Some 95% of the adult horn shark's diet consists of hard-shelled molluscs (e.g. bivalves and gastropods), echinoderms (e.g. sea urchins) and crustaceans (e.g. crabs, shrimp, an isopods). To crack their shells, the horn shark generates the highest known bite force relative to its size of any shark, well in excess of other measured species such as the spiny dogfish (Squalus acanthias) and the blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus). One study found the average bite force for this species in the wild to be 95 N with a maximum of 135 N, while under experimental conditions sharks could be induced to bite with over 200 N of force. Large horn sharks that feed mainly on sea urchins (particularly the short-spined purple urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus) have their teeth and fin spines stained purple.
Other prey items of adults include peanut worms, sea stars, cephalopods, and small bony fishes. Juveniles feed primarily on polychaete worms, sea anemones, and small clams, and have been known to "pounce" on anemones to bite off tentacles before they can be retracted.