This is the first-ever photo of a newborn great white shark in the wild.
Scientists have previously seen older shark pups or found baby great whites dead inside their deceased pregnant mothers but never before has a great white shark been seen so soon after birth.
According to the team, the baby shark may have been just hours old.
This rare sighting could offer new insights into where great whites give birth, which has long been a mystery in shark science.
Wildlife filmmaker Carols Gauna and UC Riverside PhD student Phillip Sternes were scanning the waters for sharks on 9 July 2023 in Santa Barbara, California, when something unusual appeared on their drone camera’s viewfinder.
It was a great white shark pup – but unlike any they had ever seen before.
Usually, great whites, the largest predatory sharks in the world, are grey on top and white on the bottom.
But this shark, which measured around five feet, was pure white.
“We enlarged the images, put them in slow motion, and realized the white layer was being shed from the body as it was swimming,” Sternes said.
“I believe it was a newborn white shark shedding its embryonic layer.”
Gauna, who has spent thousands of hours filming sharks around the world, said that what he and Sternes observed could help solve longstanding mysteries around great white birthing habits.
“Where white sharks give birth is one of the holy grails of shark science,” he said.
“No one has ever been able to pinpoint where they are born, nor has anyone seen a newborn baby shark alive.
“There have been dead white sharks found inside deceased pregnant mothers. But nothing like this.”
The pair acknowledged that it is possible the white film the shark shed could have been a skin condition.
“If that is what we saw, then that too is monumental, because no such condition has ever been reported for these sharks,” Gauna said.
But the pair do not believe this to be the case and are instead convinced that their sighting was of a newborn great white.
They set out the reasons for this in their paper, which has been published in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes.
“Our first evidence is that great white females give birth to live pups,” said Mr Sternes.
“While in utero, the embryonic sharks might feed on unfertilized eggs for protein.
“The mothers offer additional nourishment to the growing shark pups with a ‘milk’ secreted in the uterus.
“I believe what we saw was the baby shedding the intrauterine milk.”
The second reason is the shark’s size and shape.
It was thin, short, and rounded, which the researchers took as indicative of it being a newborn.
“In my opinion, this one was likely hours, maybe one day old at most,” Mr Sternes said.
Finally, large, likely pregnant sharks have been spotted in this area for years – many observed and filmed by Gauna himself.
The location has therefore long been proposed as a birthing location for great whites, but there has previously been no evidence.
“I filmed three very large sharks that appeared pregnant at this specific location in the days prior,” said Mr Gauna.
“On this day, one of them dove down, and not long afterwards, this fully white shark appears.
“It’s not a stretch to deduce where the baby came from.
“This may well be the first evidence we have of a pup in the wild, making this a definitive birthing location.”
Many scholars believe that great whites are born farther out at sea, so the fact that this pup was spotted so close to the shore – just 1,000 feet away from the beach – suggests great whites may give birth in shallow waters.
If future research confirms that the spot in Santa Barbara, California is indeed a great white breeding ground, they want action to be taken to protect the internationally endangered species.
“Further research is needed to confirm these waters are indeed a great white breeding ground,” said Mr Sternes.
“But if it does, we would want lawmakers to step in and protect these waters to help white sharks keep thriving.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
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