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'Sweet Pea' is First Shark Ray to Give Birth in Captivity

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Kentucky's Newport Aquarium has announced that Sweet Pea, the first documented Shark Ray to breed in a controlled environment, gave birth to seven pups on January 24! Coincidentally, Sweet Pea's pups arrived during the same week as an International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report estimating that one in four shark and ray species are at risk of extinction. Shark Rays are considered a vulnerable species. 

With Sweet Pea housed at an offsite facility in Northern Kentucky, the first pup arrived at 12:25 a.m. ET. A total of three females and three males survived the nearly five-hour birthing process, while a fourth female pup did not. Newport Aquarium now has 10 shark rays in all, which is the most in the world from any one institution.

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4 sharkrayPhoto credits: Newport Aquarium / Justin Cain (4-8)

See a video from the birth:


See a video of the pups:


Three high definition surveillance cameras were installed at the offsite facility earlier in the week to monitor Sweet Pea’s progress. With this technology, Newport Aquarium officials had the ability to remotely watch Sweet Pea online.

General Curator Mark Dvornak first noticed the pups at around 5:20 a.m. while checking the live video feed on his tablet from his home. He immediately 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,” said Dvornak. “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.”

See and read more after the fold!

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After each pup went through a medical examination, they were all moved into a separate tank adjacent to Sweet Pea’s tank. The pups’ weight ranged from 2.1 to 2.4 pounds (.95 to 1.09 kg), while their lengths ranged from 1 foot, 6.4 inches to 1 foot, 7.3 inches (49 to 47 cm). 

This historical achievement was made possible through Newport Aquarium’s revolutionary Shark Ray Breeding Program (SRBP), which was established in February 2007 with the introduction of what was, as the time, an extremely rare male shark ray named Scooter. The SRBP expanded with the introduction of a second female shark ray, Sunshine, in 2009 and a second male, Spike, in 2013.

Sweet Pea and her new newborn pups are off exhibit for now. It will be about a month before the pups will be ready to go on exhibit. 

Shark Rays, also known as Bowmouth Guitarfish, are rare and distinctive fish from the Indo-Pacific region. Feeding mostly on crabs and shellfish, they live near the coast and offshore reefs in tropical waters. Very little is known about this species that receives its name because their wide head area resembles a ray, while the rest of their body resembles a shark.

Shark Rays are officially on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals, meaning they are vulnerable to extinction. Threats to Shark Rays include habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing and the use of their fins for products including shark fin 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 since the inception of the SRBP. “It shows the world that Newport Aquarium can successfully breed Shark Rays and help this species.”

Newport Aquarium husbandry’s most immediate obstacles are to get the pups to eat and to monitor their interaction amongst one another. The tank where the pups are located has been filled with live crab for the newborn shark rays to eat once they become hungry for the first time.

“We’ll be providing them with a smorgasbord of live food items that they might encounter in the wild,” said Jen Hazeres, who along with fellow aquatic biologist Scott Brehob work closely with the SRBP.

When Sweet Pea initially made history in June 2005 by becoming the first Shark Ray to go on display in the Western Hemisphere at Newport Aquarium, there were just five institutions in the world with Shark Rays. Today that number has increased to 25 institutions.