Baby shark twins have successfully been born in the UK for the first time in a major breakthrough for British marine conservation and breeding programmes.

The two blacktip reef pups were safely delivered in a special birthing area, screened off from other creatures, at SEA LIFE Blackpool, which is the hub for all European blacktip reef breeding programmes. It has been five years in the planning and marks an important step forward as in the wild most shark pups die shortly after birth, facing threats from larger predators including other sharks and even their own mother! Unusually in the natural world, they have to be completely independent, hunting and feeding themselves, right from birth.

Aquarists supervised both births before immediately removing the pups for their safety to a special quarantine tank.  This followed careful planning over the past 12 months to try to identify when female sharks were pregnant and at what stage – a notoriously difficult task for marine experts. A detailed plan was developed for every stage of the pregnancy, birth and nursery stage, including diet and welfare. A special area was created within the main shark display, where the female could be looked after, when head aquarist Scott Blacker and his team believed the expectant shark was in the later stages of pregnancy.

Aquarists monitored the small pups round the clock for the first few days, hand-feeding pieces of fresh salmon to them, to encourage them to start feeding. The twins are now doing well, feeding properly, putting on weight and growing, having just transferred to the nursery tank. It marks a big milestone in the ‘breed, rescue, protect’ campaign of SEA LIFE Blackpool. In a pilot trial last year aquarists at SEA LIFE Blackpool managed to successfully rear one baby blacktip shark, after its surprise birth at LEGOLAND Windsor’s aquarium.  One-year-old Ariel has now doubled in size, after being transferred there to give her specialist facilities and a more suitable permanent home.  

However, the new shark twins mark a major breakthrough as this is the important first ‘litter’ to have been born as part of a dedicated breeding programme, which has been five years in the planning to enable blacktips to reach maturity at SEA LIFE Blackpool, the hub for all European blacktip reef breeding programmes. 


Matthew Titherington, general manager at SEA LIFE Blackpool, said: “I’m incredibly proud of the team and their achievement in successfully delivering two healthy shark pups.  These are the first shark pup twins born in the UK. We are dedicated to providing the best possible care for the many species we house here, but more than that want to do everything we can to support populations of these vulnerable species. Our new arrivals will provide a valuable boost to research surrounding this species, as well as strengthening breeding programmes across Europe, helping to safeguard shark populations.”

The International Union for Conservation of Nature has officially listed blacktip reef sharks as near threatened. Significant local declines in some parts of the world have been seen in recent years, primarily caused by overfishing and plastic pollution. Their low reproductive rate means shark populations can struggle to recover from depleted numbers.

Scott Blacker and his team of aquarists provided round-the-clock care for the new arrivals during their crucial first days. He said: “To have both pups healthy and growing steadily is a huge result for all of the aquarists and wider team here. Long nights and careful hand monitoring was required to provide the best possible care for these new arrivals. They’re continuing to make good progress.”

Blacktip reef sharks give birth to live young and the specific details of their early life vary depending on the regions they live in. Gestation periods vary between seven to eight months off Australia to up to 11 months in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The size of newborns also varies, with most measuring between 40cm and 50cm off Australia, while pups as small as 33cm have been observed in the Pacific islands. 


Litters of up to five have been recorded, with the size of the mother appearing to have no bearing on litter size. Young blacktips develop exceptionally quickly, growing by up to nine inches per year during their first two years of life and gaining weight at a rate of 100 grams per week. Some blacktip reef shark populations living around specific tropical islands have been decimated by overfishing, chiefly for their fins, which are highly prized in China for shark-fin soup. 

SEA LIFE Blackpool works closely with its charity partner, the Sea Life Trust, as part of its popular 'breed, rescue, protect' campaign, to develop and support ocean conservation projects worldwide, including threatened and endangered species, such as turtles, sharks and sea horses.
 

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