Looking at a list of illustrious animals that have achieved distinction through public curiosity—Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal; Koko the gorilla, who understands sign language; Heidi, the cross-eyed opossum—surely, Sweet Pea the shark ray also begs recognition.
Earlier this year, Sweet Pea shocked the science world—and most certainly the biologists at her home at the Newport Aquarium—by becoming the first shark ray to breed in captivity.
Sweet Pea already had made headlines nearly 10 years earlier as the first exhibited shark ray (Rhina ancylostoma) in the Western Hemisphere. (She’s joined at the aquarium by a few other noteworthy creatures, such as Mighty Mike, the largest alligator outside of Florida; and Bravo, an 85-year-old, 650-pound Galapagos tortoise.) Interest in the shark ray species has increased dramatically worldwide since Sweet Pea made her debut, according to Mark Dvornak, Newport Aquarium’s general curator, who manages the facility’s animal collection and has been with the organization for more than 10 years.
“I think in 2005 there were only six aquariums throughout the entire world that were displaying maybe six individual animals altogether,” he said. “We’re coming up on just about 10 years, and that number has skyrocketed to where I think there is a total of about 25 aquariums throughout the world displaying upwards of about 60 animals or so. I think that’s a testament to the popularity of the shark ray itself.”
Dvornak said not much is known about the rare species, which is found in the tropical Indo-Pacific region in waters up to 200 feet deep. Sweet Pea, whose estimated age is 10 years, is the Newport Aquarium’s largest shark ray. She weighs 234 pounds and is more than 7 feet long. Fellow female Sunshine, age 6, is the smallest adult at a little more than 6 1/2 feet long and almost 83 pounds. Their distinctive appearance—sort of a stringray-shark amalgamation, with a “winged” head area followed by shark-like dorsal and tail fins—makes the species a popular attraction in public aquariums.
“There’s a saying children really like sharks and dinosaurs, and if you ever look at a shark ray, it’s like the ultimate combination of those two things,” Dvornak said. “Shark rays have a very prehistoric look to them, so they make a great connection with the public. Not only do they have this prehistoric look, but they are very graceful when they’re swimming underwater. And they also have very expressive eyes, which I think connects well withour guests.”
Their physical attributes, especially their fins, make shark rays popular, unfortunately, to fishermen. Shark ray fins can be used in the production of shark fin soup, a popular ceremonial food in China. Their intentional or unintentional harvesting (shark rays often get caught in commercial fishing nets), among other factors, has led the International Union for Conservation of Nature to deem the animal “vulnerable,” meaning the species probably will become endangered unless its circumstances change.
“Of course, you worry about habitat loss and pollution and things like that, but the big concern is the harvesting of these animals for their fins,” Dvornak said.
Sweet Pea is joined by Scooter and Spike—both males—and Sunshine in the Shark Ray Bay exhibit at Newport Aquarium. A fifth specimen died last year during a mating accident just days after being introduced to the tank. The exhibit is part of the aquarium’s centerpiece gallery, “Surrounded by Sharks,” which, according to Dvornak, uses enough water to fill 10,000 bathtubs. Other exhibits, theaters and galleries are arranged by the type of animal on display, such as Penguin Palooza and Gator Alley; specific ecosystems, as with the World Rivers collection, which includes portals into nine waterways around the globe; and themes, such as those found in the “Bizarre and Beautiful” and “Dangerous and Deadly” exhibits.
In 2007, the facility acquired Scooter to initiate the world’s first Shark Ray Breeding Program. The goal of the program, ultimately, is to have the Newport animals producing offspring on a regular basis, which could be shared with other aquariums so wild specimens don’t have to be used. The research being conducted takes nearly every aspect of the animal into consideration, including their life span, growth and reproduction rates, and the way they interact with one another.
“Even though the name implies we are just trying to breed them, the program itself is actually multifaceted,” Dvornak said. “With the data we are gathering here, we’re hoping we can collect that data and disseminate it to other aquariums, so that those other places can take better care of their shark rays as well.”
Just a month after Sweet Pea gave birth to her litter in late January, all seven of the pups had died—an extremely unfortunate end for the world’s first shark rays born in captivity and a disappointing outcome for Dvornak and the other biologists at the aquarium. However, with no prior research or field experience on which to rely, the biologists knew they would be encountering astronomical challenges, especially since Sweet Pea’s pregnancy was unanticipated.
“This first batch of pups we had, it kind of caught us by surprise because we had taken a hands-off approach with her. It wasn’t until we noticed that she was kind of showing, and then we were going, ‘This can’t simply be weight gain,’ ” he said. “It was a surprise to us, and then when we did get confirmation of pregnancy by doing an ultrasound on her, within two weeks suddenly she gave birth, and so it was kind of us scrambling.”
The main trouble was getting the pups to feed properly. And though the entire litter was lost, invaluable information was gained so that hopefully, if Sweet Pea or Sunshine becomes pregnant, one or more of the pups will be able to survive and thrive.
If you go …
Newport Aquarium, (859) 261-7444, newportaquarium.com
Shark ray training and feeding takes place at 1:15 p.m., Monday through Friday. The four shark rays also are on display in the “Surrounded by Sharks” exhibit during regular aquarium hours.