If two sharks get it on in an aquarium and nobody’s around, does it cause a scene? Yes, in the case of two sand tiger sharks who recently caused a stir at the Tennessee Aquarium after being caught mating on camera.
The incredibly rare sighting was made possible thanks to live webcams constantly running over the aquarium’s Secret Reef exhibit. Towards the end of January 2022, the stream got a little spicier as a male made amorous advances towards a female using its best asset: teeth.
Love bites among sharks are a bit more aggressive than the human variety, seeing the male using its jaws and teeth to reposition the female for reproduction. The interaction looks a little rough to the uninitiated, and can leave wounds on the females’ fins and body – but they’re equipped for the exchange.
“If they’re facing the same direction, he’ll typically grab the female by the large fin that sticks out of her side and contort his body around her,” said aquarium director Thom Demas in a statement seen by IFLScience.
“It appears pretty vicious, but that’s how these sharks reproduce. They’re designed for this. Their skin is made of tough ‘scales’ called dermal denticles and can be much thicker than males. While they do get some injuries during mating, they’re usually superficial, and they heal.”
The team at the aquarium are now on the watch for signs that these reproduction attempts might have been successful, and the female has fallen pregnant. If so, they can expect the new arrival(s) in around nine to 13 months.
Being ovoviviparous means the baby sharks will develop inside the female before hatching, born as a live, swimming, wee bonny shark (wondering “what is a baby shark called”? We got you covered).
Ovoviviparous pregnancies get a bit hectic as they progress as older developing sharks will feed on their younger siblings for nourishment. This means that for a sand tiger shark, they may have made their first kill before they even make it out of the uterus (you can see one in-utero on an ultrasound scan here).
While a boon for producing strong, capable offspring, intrauterine cannibalism leads to low birth rates (one of the lowest of any shark for sand tigers). Bad news for a species that slipped into the “critically endangered” category back in 2020.
As such, the possibility of a captive pregnancy and birth is an exciting one for sand tiger sharks.
“The fact that this mating is happening unassisted by human intervention – just as a result of good care and diet and a healthy habitat – would be a good sign that reproduction in a well-designed habitat is attainable. That’s great for the species, since our goal is to be able to manage them in human care to help safeguard and offset their decline in the wild,” explained Demas.
In case you're wondering what the sand tiger shark lovers are up to now, you can catch them and the other residents of the Secret Reef here.