In the Shark Gallery seatube, we often hear guests singing “Baby Shark” and sometimes we are asked how baby sharks are born. The answer to that is really fascinating.
There are around 500 species of sharks that we know of, and sharks are extremely varied in their size, body shape and how they reproduce.
All baby sharks begin when a male shark and a female shark mate. How sharks find each other, how they select mates and why they decide to mate is still something scientists are investigating. The male normally bites the female to hold onto her and flip her over, and then uses his fingerlike appendage, called clasper, to deliver sperm. Since female sharks are generally bigger than male sharks, this can be difficult for males.
The female shark can store the male’s sperm until the time is right to fertilize the eggs–sometimes even waiting for years! Then things get even stranger.
Baby sharks, which are known as pups, can be born in three quite different ways.
First, some sharks lay eggs. We call this oviparous. The “mommy shark” lays an egg case in a good spot and swims away. The egg case, which is sometimes called a “mermaid’s purse,” can be perfectly camouflaged to blend in with the sea floor or algae. The egg includes all of the nutrition the pup will need to grow from a fertilized embryo to a fully functioning shark pup. When the pup is ready, it emerges from the egg case and is totally independent.
Second, some sharks grow from eggs–but inside the mother shark’s body. This is called ovoviviparous. In this type of reproduction, there is no placenta to link the “mommy shark” and the “baby shark.” The shark pup gets all of its nutrition from its own egg yolk, other egg yolks, or (yikes!) from eating its fellow fertilized eggs or other pups. Ovoviviparous sharks give live birth to a fully independent pup. This is how sand tiger sharks, like the ones you can see at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium, reproduce.
And third, some sharks do have a placenta and directly support the shark embryo until it is ready to be born as a pup. This is called viviparous, and is also how humans are born. When the shark pup has matured enough, it is born and swims away. This is how sandbar sharks, which you can also see at the Aquarium, have pups.
All sharks are born ready to fend for themselves! As soon as they’re born, shark pups are ready to swim, hunt and grow.