A large, female great white shark pregnant with a record 14 pups was accidentally caught by fishers off the coast of Taiwan and sold at a fish market on Wednesday (March 20). The enormous mamma was purchased for less than $2,000 by a Taiwanese taxidermy company, Taiwan English News reported.
The images from local news agencies of the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) and the pups that were cut out of her are hard to believe. At more than 15 feet long (4.7 meters), the shark is bigger than a small car and is probably not what most fishers want in their nets. The shark's 14 pups look as though they were nearly fully developed and ready to take on the open ocean but were stopped short when their mother was killed.
The 14 pups this mamma shark was carrying likely mark a record number for the species, said David Ebert, a shark scientist and the director of the Pacific Shark Research Center at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, California. "It is very rare to catch pregnant white sharks, so at least they were able to document this with photographs," Ebert told Live Science in an email. [Image Gallery: Great White Sharks]
"From a scientific standpoint, it's great information for us as biologists because pregnant females [that scientists can study] are few and far between," echoed George Burgess, a marine biologist and director emeritus of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida. Burgess told Live Science that before this female, the highest number of pups he could remember a white shark having was 12.
Great white sharks have two uteri, one on each side, Burgess said. He said he suspects this shark mamma was carrying seven pups in each uterus. Great white shark pups are oophagous, which means they eat eggs. "While they're in Mom, they're eating unfertilized eggs, and that's how they get big and fat," Burgess said. Plump, yolk-filled bellies are clearly visible in the photo of the 14 pups.
Although the pups look like small adult sharks, that doesn't mean they were ready to be born yet, Burgess said. Baby sharks start to look like miniadults very early on in development. If these pups can be measured, then scientists can estimate how far along in gestation the pups were before being killed.
How this big mamma was caught is unclear, but Burgess said he guesses it was trapped in something called a set net — a big net in the water that catches everything swimming in that area. "Animals swim in and don't swim out," Burgess said.
The shark was purchased by a marine taxidermy company called the Taiwan Ocean Art Museum, the Taiwan English News reported.
"My guess is [that] whoever bought it wanted the jaw," Burgess said. "Any large white shark jaw is worth a lot of money for collectors." The shark was sold by the pound, according to reports, which probably means the rest of the shark was sold for consumption, he said. "The animal will be totally utilized."
But before the shark is consumed, Burgess and his colleagues are working to connect with the shark's purchaser and obtain tissue samples from the mamma shark and each of her pups. "This is exciting for us as scientists because, again, finding a pregnant female doesn't happen often," Burgess said. "They aren't getting caught as often, which is great, but you also don't get animals to look at."
White shark populations are threatened worldwide, and the species is classified as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.
"The story is a good one in the sense of knowledge," Burgess said, "but a bad one in the sense that it's a pregnant female shark."
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Originally published on Live Science.
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Kimberly has a bachelor's degree in marine biology from Texas A&M University, a master's degree in biology from Southeastern Louisiana University and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a former reference editor for Live Science and Space.com. Her work has appeared in Inside Science, News from Science, the San Jose Mercury and others. Her favorite stories include those about animals and obscurities. A Texas native, Kim now lives in a California redwood forest.