As Mother’s Day approaches, Georgia Aquarium is eagerly anticipating the hatching of its latest group of zebra shark pups. The Aquarium’s largest exhibit, 6.3 million-gallon Ocean Voyager Built by The Home Depot, is home to five zebra sharks. The sharks have had a record of successful reproduction in Ocean Voyager since the Aquarium opened in 2005 – and this year is shaping up to be their most prolific one yet. Ocean Voyager’s three female zebra sharks have produced more than 20 fertilized egg cases since December.
Pregnant zebra sharks deposit large dark brown or purplish-black eggs cases, also called mermaid’s purses, and anchor them to the substrate or a hard surface with long fibers. The mermaid’s purses found in Ocean Voyager have been carefully collected by staff, and are being cared for in a behind the scenes area where they can be closely monitored until hatching. These egg cases can take four to six months to hatch, depending on a variety of conditions. Since the earliest egg cases were found in Ocean Voyager in December, that means we could see the first hatchlings emerge any day now!
The zebra shark (Stegastoma fasciatum) is native to the shallow waters of the Indo-Pacific, and is known for its distinctive coloration. One look at this strikingly spotted species, and you may wonder how this shark received its common name. After all, the adult form of this species is tan with dark spots – similar to those of a leopard. The common name of the zebra shark, however, comes from the coloration of the animal’s young. Newly hatched pups are dark in color with lighter bands, forming a striped pattern similar to that of a zebra. As the young sharks mature, these stripes break up into the characteristic spots for which the species is known.
This unique coloration has made the zebra shark a favorite at Georgia Aquarium – but this species needs our help. Due in part to threats from inshore fisheries in parts of its range, the zebra shark is listed as “Endangered” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List – but Georgia Aquarium is taking action to preserve this species for future generations.
The zebra sharks at Georgia Aquarium are part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) program. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that animals in accredited facilities receive the highest standards of care. By participating in this program, the Aquarium works with other accredited zoological institutions to collectively manage populations of endangered or threatened species in human care. Each SSP is managed by a studbook keeper, who makes breeding recommendations to ensure the long-term sustainability of a healthy and genetically diverse population of these animals in zoos and aquariums. Member institutions also share information on the best animal care practices for each species, leading to the very best quality of care possible for these animals.
Any shark pups born at Georgia Aquarium will need to grow for several years before they can go on exhibit into Ocean Voyager with other sharks. Once old enough, based on the needs of the Aquarium and SSP recommendations, many may move on to other zoological institutions to serve as ambassadors for their species, teaching guests about the challenges sharks face in the ocean and inspiring future generations to become stewards for the preservation of our planet.
Georgia Aquarium participates in several Species Survival Plans, including zebra sharks, spotted eagle rays and African penguins. This is just one way we demonstrate our commitment to the conservation of aquatic animals around the world every day.
This Mother’s Day, join us in celebrating some of the most prolific moms at Georgia Aquarium – Giraffe, Cheetah and Dalmatian – for their extremely positive year and for playing an important part in the Aquarium’s efforts to preserve this beautiful species. If you’d like a close up look at these spectacularly speckled sharks, visit Georgia Aquarium in person (and bring your own mom!) to learn more about this remarkable species and thousands more!