SHARK REPRODUCTION

Sharks invest a lot of energy into producing only a few well developed young that have a better chance of survival. Reproduction takes many forms in sharks and rays, with the three main methods being oviparity, viviparity and ovoviviparity - although there are still variations within each.


Port Jackson Shark © Taso Viglas, Wikimedia Commons.

Skate life cycle illustration © Marc Dando.

OVIPARITY (egg-laying)

Skate, chimaera and some species of shark (including catsharks and horn sharks) produce eggs that are encased in a tough, ‘leathery’ 

eggcase (or mermaid’s purse) that is laid on the seabed. A female shark may spend a long time laying her eggcases to ensure they’re securely fixed in a safe place, as it can take between 6-9 months before they’re ready to hatch. Depending on the species, features 

such as curled tendrils, horns and sticky mucus filaments 

attach the eggcase to a substrate (e.g. seabed, reef, seaweed) while the young shark or skate develops.

This protective capsule acts as a life-support machine, with everything that is needed enclosed within. The embryo absorbs nutrients from a yolk sac before hatching as a miniature version of the adult.

Empty eggcases can often be found washed up on the beach and it’s possible to tell which species they belong to by looking at the size, shape and different features.You can become a citizen scientist and help shark conservation by searching beaches for mermaid’s purses and recording your finds to the Great Eggcase Hunt!

FUN FACT – horn sharks (such as the Port Jackson) lay large eggs shaped like a corkscrew that wedge firmly between rocks.

Spiny Dogfish © Lill Haugen.

OVOVIVIPARITY

Instead of laying her eggs, the female will carry them inside her body, providing extra safety from potential predators. The embryos develop within an eggcase which has a thin membrane-like covering rather than the hard mermaid’s purses. Once the food supply from the yolk has finished and the embryo has fully developed and hatched inside the female, she will then give birth to the young. In some species, the pups are not born immediately after hatching out of the eggcases, instead they stay in the uterus where they are provided with more food in the form of unfertilised eggs that are released to feed the growing embryos. This is known as oophagy.

GRUSOME FACT – the pups of Sandtiger Sharks not only eat unfertilised eggs but their un-hatched siblings too! This is called intrauterine cannibalism.

Bull Shark © Rob Allen.

 

VIVPARITY (live birth)

Viviparity is the most advanced method of reproduction. The shark develops inside the mother’s body, receiving nutrients and oxygen from the mother through an umbilical cord. This is the same method used by mammals, however unlike mammals, when the pups are born they are immediately independent and must fend for themselves.

FASCINATING FACT – some female sharks (such as Bonnethead, Blacktip and Zebra Sharks) are able to reproduce without having a male fertilise the eggs - this is known as parthenogenesis (or ‘virgin births’).

NURSERIES

To improve their pups’ chance of survival, some sharks give birth or lay their eggs in nursery areas. Here the water is usually warm and shallow, there is a good food supply and they are less accessible to potential predators. Once they’ve reached a good size they venture out into the underwater world alone.


WHY ARE SHARKS UNDER THREAT?

Some species of sharks are amongst the most threatened species in the world. Their biological traits make them particularly vulnerable to overfishing, some of these include:

  • Producing only a few young a year –varying from two pups for the Bigeye Thresher to 135 for the Blue Shark.
     
  • Long pregnancies, averaging between 9-12 months. Spiny Dogfish have the longest recorded pregnancy at an incredible 22 months.
     
  • Not all sharks reproduce every year - many have a resting stage of 1-2 years.
     
  • Sharks are slow to grow and reach sexual maturity - Lemon Sharks are able to reproduce from the age of 15 years and Spiny Dogfish from 20 years. Many young sharks are killed before they’ve reached maturity and been able to reproduce.

Tens of millions of sharks are killed each year and many populations continue to decline at an alarming rate. Without sharks, marine ecosystems face an uncertain future but by getting involved with shark conservation, you can help keep our seas healthy - visit our Get Involved page to find out more.


RELATED LINKS:

Join the Great Eggcase Hunt

Get Involved with shark conservation