Rare shark ray named Sweet Pea delivers seven pups, becomes first to breed in captivity

Sweet Pea the rare shark ray, with two of her offspring

Sweet Pea the rare shark ray, with two of her offspring. All images courtesy of the Newport Aquarium

A rare shark ray named Sweet Pea has put Kentucky's Newport Aquarium in the spotlight by delivering seven little shark rays into the world.

Sadly, only six of the spotted pups survived, but Sweet Pea's achievement is nonetheless historic as she becomes the world’s first documented shark ray to breed in a controlled environment.

The little ones—three males and three females—bring to 10 the number of shark rays being cared for at the facility. That's more shark rays than are housed at any other institution.

"It's the kind of feeling you have as a first-time parent, where it's suddenly, 'Wow. The babies are here,'" Mark Dvornak, general curator at the aquarium, told Cincinnati.com. "It's something we've dreamed about."

Five of Sweet Pea's little shark rays

Five of Sweet Pea’s little shark rays

Prehistoric-looking shark rays, also known as bowmouth guitarfish, are rare and mysterious critters that were recently placed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, because of habitat destruction, pollution, and overfishing.

Shark rays are found in the Indo-Pacific region. They feed mostly on crabs and other shellfish, and are called shark rays mostly because their heads are wide and resemble those of rays, while their bodies look more like those of sharks.

Sweet Pea and two of her little shark rays

Sweet Pea and two of her little shark rays

Sweet Pea, in 2005, became the first shark ray to go on exhibit in the Western Hemisphere. Her former home had been the waters off Taiwan.

The little ones are the result of adding two male shark rays to the mix, beginning in 2007, and letting nature take its course.

However, the “historic biological achievement” was not without drama. The Jan. 24 birthing process, at an offsite facility in Northern Kentucky, lasted nearly five hours. (The births were not announced until Wednesday.)

Beforehand, surveillance cameras were installed so husbandry staff could use a live computer feed to check on Sweet Pea from time to time.

Dvornak spotted the pups at 5:20 a.m., alerted the staff, and hurried to the site. Within 15 minutes, biologists were monitoring the pups.

"Seeing the live video feed of the small pups swimming around was a bit surreal this morning," Dvornak said on the aquarium blog. "Racing into work, I felt a bit of trepidation, too, as I realized our seven-year dream of successfully breeding these wondrous creatures had become reality."

Each of the six pups, weighing about 2 pounds and measuring more than 1 foot, received a checkup and was placed in a separate tank adjacent to Sweet Pea's, because mother shark rays do not care for their young.

The pups and mom will eventually go on display at the aquarium, but dates have not yet been determined.

First the baby shark rays must eat and gain strength. (The little ones turned a week old on Friday.)

Eventually, they'll receive names, and hopefully, with the help of geneticists, the staff will learn which of the adult male shark rays is the father.

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