Newport Aquarium’s Sweet Pea, the First Documented Shark Ray to Breed in Captivity, Gives Birth to Seven Pups

Sweet Pea swims past two of her newborn pups.

Sweet Pea swims past two of her newborn pups.

NEWPORT, Ky. – In a historic biological achievement, Newport Aquarium announced Wednesday that Sweet Pea, the first documented shark ray to breed in a controlled environment, gave birth to seven pups on Friday, Jan. 24, 2014.

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.

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.”

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, while their length ranged from as long as 1 foot, 7.3 inches to as short as 1 foot, 6.4 inches.

A closeup of two newborn shark ray pups.

A closeup of two newborn shark ray pups.

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 will go on exhibit at Newport Aquarium on separate to-be-determined dates.

Shark rays (Rhina ancylostoma), 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.

Sweet Pea’s successful birthing comes on the heels of reports that surfaced in January 2014 that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 25 percent of all shark and ray species are at risk of becoming extinct. 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.

For the most up-to-date information on Sweet Pea and her six newborn pups, visit www.NewportAquarium.com, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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Newport Aquarium showcases thousands of animals from around the world in a million gallons of water. Newport Aquarium is a Herschend Family Entertainment company (http://www.hfecorp.com) and an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Newport Aquarium is open to the public 365 days a year and is located two minutes from downtown Cincinnati at Newport on the Levee. Like us on Facebook (Facebook.com/NewportAquarium) and follow us on Twitter (@NewportAquarium).

One Aquarium Way, Newport, KY 41071 (859) 261-7444
www.newportaquarium.com

She’s Pregnant! Sweet Pea Becomes First Confirmed Shark Ray In Captivity to Breed in the World

Sweet Pea is the first confirmed shark ray to become pregnant outside the wild.

Sweet Pea is the first confirmed shark ray to become pregnant outside the wild.

NEWPORT, Ky. – Newport Aquarium announced Saturday that Sweet Pea, the first shark ray to go on display in the Western Hemisphere, is pregnant – marking the first time a shark ray has become pregnant while in a controlled environment.

This historical achievement was made possible through Newport Aquarium’s revolutionary Shark Ray Breeding Program. Established in February 2007 with the introduction of an extremely rare male shark ray named Scooter, the Shark Ray Breeding Program (SRBP) is not just about reproducing this prehistoric looking fish.

“The goals of the program go beyond breeding them. We’re striving to learn as much as we can about shark rays,” said Newport Aquarium Animal Health Specialist Jolene Hanna, who has been studying hormones in the shark rays since the program’s inception.

Shark rays (Rhina ancylostoma) are rare, 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.

“We are thrilled with this development,” said Mark Dvornak, general curator at Newport Aquarium and SRBP lead biologist. “The pregnancy is a testament to the hard work and dedication our husbandry and veterinary teams have given these many years to better understand these remarkable animals. Newport Aquarium is a leader in the husbandry of shark rays and we are often contacted by aquariums and zoos from around the world, seeking help with their shark rays.”

After an ultrasound performed by Dr. Peter Hill and the Newport Aquarium husbandry staff confirmed her pregnancy on Jan. 8, Sweet Pea was taken off display and moved to an offsite facility in Northern Kentucky, where she will remain for the duration of the gestation period. The ultrasound equipment was on loan from the University of Cincinnati FETCHLAB in the College of Allied Health Sciences.

An ultrasound performed on Jan. 8 confirmed Sweet Pea's pregnancy.

An ultrasound performed on Jan. 8 confirmed Sweet Pea’s pregnancy.

Dr. Hill speculates that Sweet Pea could give birth to around a half a dozen pups. However, Newport Aquarium biologists are tempering expectations due to the unchartered territory of shark ray reproduction.

“As excited as we are, there’s still a lot of work to do. There are many challenges and unknowns to overcome,” said Scott Brehob, who along with Jen Hazeres are the two biologists that take care of the shark rays on a daily basis.

The World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists shark rays as vulnerable to extinction on its Red List of Threatened Animals. Threats to shark rays include habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing and the use of their fins for products including shark fin soup.

Upon Sweet Pea’s arrival at Newport Aquarium in June 2005, there were just five institutions in the world with shark rays. Today that number has increased to 25 institutions.

Currently, Newport Aquarium has four total shark rays after the introduction of a second female shark ray, Sunshine, in 2007 and a second male, Spike, in 2013.

For the most up-to-date information on Sweet Pea’s pregnancy visit www.NewportAquarium.com, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.