One of the pups, a little female, did not survive, but the rest did. “Sweet Pea” — the shark ray mom — now has three female pups and three males. One can only imagine that Sweet Pea is relieved … and tired. The birthing process took an arduous five hours.
At birth, the pups’ weight ranged from 2.1 to 2.4 pounds. The longest was 1 foot, 7.3 inches, and the shortest was 1 foot, 6.4 inches.
Shark rays aren’t exactly welcoming of human nursing. Staff at the aquarium had therefore moved the pregnant Sweet Pea to an offsite facility in Northern Kentucky, where she was remotely monitored using three high-definition surveillance cameras.
General Curator Mark Dvornak first noticed the pups at around 5:20 a.m. while checking the live video feed on his tablet at home, according to the press release. He sent an alert out to the rest of the husbandry staff, and by 5:35 a.m. biologists were on site monitoring the six newborn pups.
“Seeing the live video feed of the small pups swimming around was a bit surreal this morning,” Dvornak said in a press release. “Racing into work, I felt a bit of trepidation too as I realized our seven-year dream of successfully breeding these wondrous creatures had become reality.”
Shark rays, also known as bowmouth guitarfish, are an endangered species that’s closely related to sharks as well as to skates. Their body resembles that of a shark while their head is more ray-like. They are native to the Indo-Pacific region, where they spend most of their days feeding on crabs and other shellfish near the coast and offshore reefs in tropical waters.
Sweet Pea and her pups, however, are part of Newport Aquarium’s Shark Ray Breeding Program, which now has 10 shark rays in total — the most in the world for one institution.
It sounds like the dad is either Spike or Scooter, two males at the aquarium. Spike just arrived last year and might be the one that resulted in the birth spike!
The births come on the heels of distressing recent reports about shark and ray populations. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), for example, estimates that 25 percent of all shark and ray species are at risk of becoming extinct. In the wild, threats to them include habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing and the use of their fins for soup.
“It’s cool that Sweet Pea gave birth the same week as the IUCN reports,” said animal health specialist Jolene Hanna, who has been studying hormones in the shark rays. “It shows the world that Newport Aquarium can successfully breed shark rays and help this species.”
Sweet Pea and her new newborn pups will go on exhibit at Newport Aquarium on separate to-be-determined dates.
Photo: Justin Cain, Newport Aquarium