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"Miraculous" Virgin Shark Birth Blesses Brookfield Zoo in Illinois

This miracle is called parthenogenesis.

By Cassidy Ward

The enterprising sharks in Sharknado and its sequels may have figured out how to literally ride the lightning and attack humanity from on high. But even they would be impressed with the sharky superpower on display at Illinois’ Brookfield Zoo.

There, a female epaulette shark recently gave virgin birth to a single shark pup.

Shark Born at Brookfield Zoo in “Miraculous” Virgin Birth

The mother epaulette shark, otherwise known as walking sharks for their talent of walking short distances over dry land, arrived at Brookfield Zoo in 2019, at the age of three, and hasn’t been housed with any males since. Further evidence for asexual reproduction is the fact that epaulette sharks don’t reach sexual maturity until around the age of seven, an age she has only recently reached.

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Starting in 2022, the shark began laying between two and four eggs every month. All of them were infertile as zookeepers had expected, until one of them wasn’t. A couple of months ago, after a five-month incubation period, one of those eggs surprisingly hatched. Since then, it’s been hanging out in the background of the zoo being monitored by specialists while they make sure it develops properly and remains healthy, according to the Brookfield Zoo.

A spotted Milne Bay Epaulette Shark swims in Papua New Guinea.

“We are happy to report that our epaulette pup has been eating well on her diet of finely chopped capelin, minced squid tentacles, and other finely chopped seafood. Our colleagues at New England Aquarium have been a great resource as shark pup produced parthenogenetically can be very delicate,” said Mike Masellis, a lead animal care specialist at Brookfield Zoo, in a statement.

While rare, parthenogenesis is not unheard of in sharks. A smoothhound shark at an aquarium in Italy gave birth through the same process back in 2021. Parthenogenesis is a type of asexual reproduction undertaken by a smattering of complex plants and animals in which an embryo develops in a singular gamete (egg or sperm) without the contribution of a second gamete.

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It is well understood that some species of shark are capable of reproduction through parthenogenesis, but it isn’t precisely clear why some sharks do it and others don’t or what the instigating factors might be. It has been suggested that one form, known as facultative parthenogenesis, might be driven by the lack of viable males in an environment. If a female has no success finding a mate they might be pushed toward parthenogenesis. However, some species will use parthenogenesis even when viable mates are available. Honestly, we don’t blame them. If given the option of reproduction without the hassle of dating, we’d bet shekels to shark teeth a good chunk of people would take that option.

If the Sharknado sharks start reproducing asexually in the air, we’re in deep trouble. Catch Sharknado: Heart of Sharkness streaming now on Peacock.

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