For the first time, a sand tiger shark has been born through artificial insemination in a world-first for the species at Ripley’s Aquariums in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. With the population of these animals decreasing, the achievement marks what could be a pivotal step in securing the future of these animals in the wild.
The miracle pup has been named Rip after the company’s founder Robert LeRoy Ripley, and came into the world on March 24, 2022. Since then, he’s developed at a natural rate and now clocks in at 7.9 kilograms (17.4 pounds) and measures nearly 1 meter (3 feet) in length.
Artificially inseminating a shark involves taking a sperm sample and inserting it into the reproductive tract of a female shark who had egg cases developing inside her. The female will first be checked for signs of any residual sperm from a previous interaction as some egg-laying sharks store up sperm for when they need it.
Sperm samples used in artificial insemination are often first frozen and then thawed out before being put into a female, a development in captive shark care that has enabled researchers to create shark pups from parents on opposite sides of the globe. This is crucial to the success of captive breeding programs as it means that genetic material from a wide range of animals can be shared between aquariums and research institutions to keep the genetic pool nice and open.
“Chickens of the sea” is a nickname sometimes given to egg-laying sharks as they can be similarly regular in their egg laying schedules. This is helpful for artificial insemination as it means we can better predict when the best time is to try and fertilize developing eggs.
Rip’s mom was inseminated in May 2021 and began showing signs of pregnancy shortly after. Gestation for these animals takes between eight and 12 months, meaning these animals have a slow reproductive rate and are only able to produce two pups every two to three years.
Using ultrasonography, the Ripley’s Veterinary and Husbandry Teams were able to check in on Rip’s progress over the next year and when the time was right, he came wriggling into the world in March of this year.
Sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus) can live for more than 24 years in the wild, but they are vulnerable to fishing and climate change, which can cause shifts in their suitable habitats. A 2020 assessment by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species found that the species is now Critically Endangered, so pups like Rip could have an important role to play in preserving these sharks’ genetic diversity.
“Rip represents the future and an important moment in history for his species,” said Vice President of Ripley’s Aquarium, Tim Handsel, in a statement. “When research, science, and care come together, the future of vulnerable species like the sand tiger shark looks brighter. This pup means a great deal to Ripley’s Aquariums and the survival of the species around the world.”