Newport Aquarium confirms its two female shark rays are pregnant

First three cases of shark ray breeding under professional care have occurred at Newport Aquarium

NEWPORT, Ky.Newport Aquarium announced Wednesday its two female shark rays, Sweet Pea and Sunshine, are both pregnant – the second and third documented cases of shark ray breeding under professional animal care in the world.

“This is an exciting next step in realizing the goals of our Shark Ray Breeding Program,” said Eric Rose, executive director at Newport Aquarium. “Still, pregnancy is not without risk, so we are cautiously optimistic that both Sweet Pea and Sunshine will give birth to healthy shark ray pups. Newport Aquarium is dedicated to the conservation of these threatened animals and we remain committed to sharing the shark rays’ story of survival.”

Newport Aquarium animal husbandry staff confirmed the pregnancies after performing ultrasounds for Sweet Pea on Oct. 1 and Sunshine on Oct. 8. Newport Aquarium veterinarian Dr. Peter Hill, who conducted the ultrasounds, estimates Sweet Pea and Sunshine’s due dates are within two to three months, with Sweet Pea expected to deliver first. The equipment used to conduct the ultrasounds was on loan from the FETCH-LAB at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Allied Health Sciences.

Sunshine ultrasound

Newport Aquarium staff perform an ultrasound on Sunshine the shark ray on Oct. 8, 2015.

Shark rays are a vulnerable species on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, one level from endangered. Threats to shark rays include habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing and the use of their fins for products, including shark fin soup.

“With the world’s shark ray population depleting at a faster rate than it’s being replaced, the Shark Ray Breeding Program is important because it helps us better understand the life cycle of shark rays and closely related species,” said Ric Urban, chief conservation officer at Newport Aquarium. “The knowledge gained from this program will be valuable information for the sustainability of shark ray populations in the wild.”

The public can still see Sweet Pea and Sunshine in the Surrounded by Sharks exhibit now through a to-be-determined time closer to their due dates, at which point they will be moved to Newport Aquarium’s offsite animal health facility in Northern Kentucky.

Sunshin_Ultrasound_NAQ-FetchLab_measurement

A screenshot from Sunshine’s ultrasound performed on Oct. 8, 2015, reveals a developing shark ray pup, measuring 10.51 centimeters (4.14 inches).

Newport Aquarium established the world’s first Shark Ray Breeding Program on Feb. 14, 2007, when a male shark ray named Scooter was introduced to the 385,000-gallon Surrounded by Sharks exhibit. The breeding program expanded in winter 2013 when Sunshine moved from the Coral Reef tunnel to Surrounded by Sharks and a second male shark ray named Spike also was introduced to the Aquarium’s signature exhibit.

Nearly seven years after Newport Aquarium established the Shark Ray Breeding Program, Sweet Pea became the first shark ray to give birth while under professional animal care on Jan. 24, 2014.

For more information on Newport Aquarium, visit NewportAquarium.com or call toll free 800-406-FISH (3474). Connect with Newport Aquarium on Facebook and Twitter, or subscribe to its blog, for the most up-to-date news regarding the shark ray pregnancies.

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Newport Aquarium has showcased thousands of animals from around the world in a million gallons of water since May 15, 1999. Named one of the best aquariums in the U.S. by Travel Channel and USA Today, Newport Aquarium is a Herschend Family Entertainment company and an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Newport Aquarium is open to the public 365 days a year and located across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati at Newport on the Levee.

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

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