Baby Sandbar Sharks Are Thriving In The Arizona Desert

By Phil Latzman
Published: Wednesday, March 11, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, March 11, 2020 - 10:13am

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Baby sharks have come to Arizona — and we’re not talking about the song.

While the catchy tune and cartoon have made them as popular as ever, it should be noted that baby sharks are actually called pups — and some of them are now being born in captivity, right here in Arizona, at OdySea Aquarium on the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

“It was incredibly significant. Our team, about a year ago, witnessed our sandbar sharks showing breeding behavior which is a great indication that our animals are thriving in the environment,” said Dave Peranteau, director of animal care at the three-year-old facility near Scottsdale, smack dab in the middle of the Sonoran Desert.

Sure enough, one of the females was pregnant — and accommodations were made.

“We ended up moving animals over 200 pounds each. In all, about a dozen large animals had to be moved around to other parts of the aquarium,” Peranteau said.

After nearly a year of gestation on Feb. 20, mama shark gave birth to four healthy pups, two males and two females. “There’s always a little bit of doubt. It’s not a common thing that occurs," Peranteau said. 

Phil Latzman/KJZZ
Dr. Eric Anderson (left), head veterinarian at OdySea, and Dave Peranteau, director of Animal Care and Conservation.

Dr. Eric Anderson is OdySea’s head veterinarian. 

“Shows that what we have created here in the middle of the desert is good enough for these animals to thrive and perform natural behaviors,” Anderson said. 

Anderson says they simply let nature take its course.

“We’re not really actively promoting their reproduction, we’re not trying to hinder their production, we’re giving them an opportunity to live that natural behavior, just live your life and if you do it that’s great, we will learn as much as we can,” Anderon said. 

OdySea says since opening in September 2016, It had California leopard sharks born at their facility and even some endangered African penguins.

OdySea Aquarium
Four healthy pups were born at OdySea Aquarium on Feb. 20, 2020.

But sandbar sharks born in the wild are rare. Although difficult to verify and unable to include some that may have gone unrecorded, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums can only account for fewer than 10 known recorded births in the United States.

“Sandbar sharks are some of the best studied sharks in the world and have contributed significantly to scientific understanding of the ocean,” said David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist and post doctoral researcher at ASU’s Washington, D.C., campus.

The brown-colored fish, which can grow to 6 to 8 feet in length and weigh up to 200 pounds, are Schiffman’s favorites because they often act as shark ambassadors.

“They punch above their weight, in terms of both public outreach and scientific understanding of sharks," Schiffman said. "They do very well in captivity and are found in aquariums around the world, which means for millions of people, a sandbar shark is the first shark they’ll see in their entire life.”

While captive breeding is considered a great conservation strategy for many threatened species, including endangered corals, keeping sharks in captivity literally does have its limitations.

But Neil Hammerschlag, a marine ecologist and professor at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science, says within limits, it does more good than harm.

“I see the ability to keep sharks in aquaria potentially very beneficial because they can create awareness and appreciation for sharks and the ocean more generally," Hammerschlag said. 

OdySea Aquarium is adjacent to, but not associated with the now-defunct Dolphinaris exhibit, which closed last year after four of its dolphins died. While ocean mammals who breathe outside the water may be affected by the dry desert, scientists said there’s no reason to believe sharks or other water breathers mind at all.

Peranteau says they aim to keep it that way at what is now one of the largest aquariums in the country.

OdySea Aquarium
OdySea Aquarium welcomed its first-ever sandbar shark pups on Feb. 20, 2020.

“I can’t comment on next door, cause we’ve never had those animals in our collection. But the animals in our collection thrive on a daily basis. There’s an incredible group of people here that have dedicated their lives to make sure that these animals’ lives are the best they can possibly be," Peranteau said. 

For now, the pups are located in a separate tank offsite to keep them safe from predators. Once they get big enough to mix with a general aquarium population, Parenteau says they might not be there for long.

“The sandbar sharks obviously have not been bred often in aquariums, so they’re gonna be very sought after. So, if we don’t decide to keep them, we’ll share with other aquariums around the country," Parenteau said. 

And he says they may try again to let nature take its course and see what happens.

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