DUBAI // An ambitious new breeding project has been launched as an “insurance policy” to protect the future of the threatened sand tiger shark.
In a world first, Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo has initiated an assisted breeding programme for the species, of which there are only 1,500 estimated to remain in the wild.
The long-term project will develop technology that could eventually be used to artificially inseminate various species of sharks.
“Artificial insemination has already been used on brown-banded bamboo sharks with a pup successfully born from an egg,” said Paul Hamilton, general manager and aquarium curator.
“But this is the first time the technique is going to be applied to sand tiger sharks, which give birth to pups in the womb, so it’s a real world first.”
The groundwork on the science has been done at Sea Life in Melbourne, Australia, and Dr Jon Daly, who is involved with that nine-year research, will lead the project in Dubai as a research consultant.
A full-time research vet will also be on hand to support the project at Dubai Aquarium.
“We have a number of sand tiger sharks at the aquarium and that means it will allow us to monitor them more easily,” Mr Hamilton said.
Sperm from male sharks will be frozen in liquid nitrogen at -196°C. It can be stored at that temperature for an indefinite period until it is required to inseminate a female shark.
The sand tiger shark is listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species and could become extinct in 30 years.
It is a unique animal because the females only breed every two years and no more than two pups are usually born.
This is because there is a fierce fight for survival in the mother’s womb as the pups kill and eat each other until only one or two are left.
“It’s nature’s way of making sure that the shark that is born is fit and strong enough to survive in the wild,” Mr Hamilton said.
“Unfortunately, this is one of the reasons why the declining numbers in the wild are so hard to replenish.
“They are a fearsome-looking shark, with the row of big teeth, and that has given them a reputation as potential threats to humans, so there has been some hunting because of that.
“We are confident that the techniques learnt in Dubai Aquarium and Underwater Zoo will eventually be applied to the conservation of sharks worldwide.”
A cryogenic lab has been set up to support the programme and visitors will be able to see the work being done as well as behind-the-scenes operations at the aquarium.
The research is expected to lead to new scientific protocols in areas that include handling of sand tiger sharks, sperm collection and its cryo-preservation, ultrasound monitoring of female sharks and live birth of pups.
Dr Daly will be splitting his time between Dubai and Melbourne.
“We will monitor the reproduction cycles of the females here in Dubai because, at the moment, there hasn’t been much study on that and we will also be collecting blood to help replicate hormones,” he said.
“Eventually we could inseminate a female sand tiger but that will be further down the line, once we know more about their breeding habits. Hopefully this is an insurance policy in case the worst happens and they do become extinct.”
Similar reproduction programmes have been successful for Pacific white-sided dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, Spanish ibex, cheetahs and the giant panda.
The work in Dubai will be shared around the world.
For more information, visit www.thedubaiaquarium.com or call 04 448 5200.