A ray in Australia has just given birth. That might not sound all that exciting, but it turns out she hasn’t been anywhere near a male ray for over nine years.
Freckle is an eagle ray – think Mr Ray from Finding Nemo – and lives at Australia's Sea Life Sydney Aquarium, where she is one of the main attractions thanks to the brilliant white spots on her back and wing-like fins.
So how did she get pregnant?
Well, she actually used a method called parthenogenesis (literally meaning “virgin origin” in ancient Greek), a process that’s pretty rare in the animal kingdom. Parthenogenesis involves an embryo developing without the need of sperm from a male to fertilize it.
Some animals like humans, and all other mammals for that matter, need a male and a female to reproduce. Others, like whiptail lizards, are asexual and can reproduce solo. But certain creatures, like sawfish, snakes, and sharks, can do it both ways. It provides the opportunity to reproduce when there’s a lack of males around. However, the resulting offspring are less genetically diverse than their sexually produced counterparts, which can interfere with health.
“It is a rare occurrence among vertebrates such as Eagle Rays – so this is a very special arrival for Sea Life Sydney Aquarium,” said Adam Stowe, an associate professor at Macquarie University, in a statement.
Back in early June, the aquarium’s ray team noticed some changes to Freckle. Her belly was growing, she was breathing and swimming faster, her appetite had increased, and she was less inclined to participate in training sessions, which suggested she might be protecting something. However, the aquarists originally assumed she couldn’t be pregnant as there was no male eagle ray in her tank.
But a few weeks later, suspicions were confirmed.
“On 26th July, when I came in to check the Dugong Island tank where Freckle lives, she swam over the tunnel and there was no belly!” said senior aquarist and ray trainer Libby Eyre. “I quickly found the bub and there were screams of excitement from the staff – everyone was amazed at the process of having produced a little ray with no males in the tank! We’re now proudly home to a very rare little baby eagle ray.”
Freckle’s new daughter is named Ani, short for Anakin, after Anakin Skywalker – aka Darth Vader – as he also had no father.
Four-week-old Ani is healthy and is being closely monitored by the team. She is still too young to be put on display but the aquarists hope to introduce her to one of their oceanariums in the future. For now, she is "swimming, eating, and demonstrating the habits of a happy and healthy baby eagle ray – who loves eating mussels and pilchard fillets."