NEWPORT, Ky. — One of Northern Kentucky's most popular family attractions will soon have as many as six new scary looking water babies swimming in its tanks.
Sweet Pea, the first shark ray to go on display in the Western Hemisphere, is pregnant, the Newport Aquarium announced Saturday in a press release. This marks the first time the distinctive fish has become pregnant while in a controlled environment.
“We are thrilled with this development,” said aquarium curator Mark Dvornak, whose staff confirmed the pregnancy Jan. 8 after an ultrasound.
According to an Associated Press article, Dvornak said some of the pups will go on display in Newport while others will likely go to other aquariums and zoos.
Dr. Peter Hill speculates that Sweet Pea could give birth to around a half a dozen pups. However, Newport Aquarium biologists are tempering expectations due to the unchartered territory of shark ray reproduction.
“As excited as we are, there’s still a lot of work to do. There are many challenges and unknowns to overcome,” said Scott Brehob, who along with Jen Hazeres are the two biologists that take care of the shark rays on a daily basis.
Very little is known about this rare species that receives its name because their wide head area resembles a ray, while the rest of their body resembles a shark.
The World Conservation Union lists the tropical fish as vulnerable to extinction on its Red List of Threatened Animals due to threats such as habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing and the use of their fins for products including shark fin soup. Shark rays live primarily in the Indo-Pacific region, near the coast and offshore reefs in tropical water.
But in addition to being rare, they're notoriously difficult to breed.
Newport Aquarium has been working to change that since February 2007 when they created the Shark Ray Breeding Program (SRBP). The program began with the introduction of an extremely rare male shark ray named Scooter.
“The pregnancy is a testament to the hard work and dedication our husbandry and veterinary teams have given these many years to better understand these remarkable animals," said Dvornak, who refers to his team as a leader in the husbandry of shark rays.
In addition to helping aquariums and zoos from around the world with their own animals, the biologists at Newport Aquarium want to use the program to further their understanding of the species.
When Sweet Pea arrived at Newport Aquarium in June 2005 there were only five institutions in the world with shark rays. Today that number has increased to 25 institutions but marine biologists believe there's still a long way to go.
That's something animal health specialist Jolene Hannah hopes the SRB program can help with.
“The goals of the program go beyond breeding them. We’re striving to learn as much as we can about shark rays,” said Hannah, who has been studying hormones in the prehistoric looking creatures since the program’s inception.
Sweet Pea is no longer on display. The expecting mother-to-be was moved to an offsite facility in Northern Kentucky after confirmation of her pregnancy. She will remain there for the duration of the gestation period.
Aquarium-goers can can still see three other shark rays in a part of the venue called Shark Ray Bay. You can say hello to Scooter, Sunshine and the newest addition, Spike, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Sunday.