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Meet Our Ocean’s Zebra Sharks

Join us on a sea-fari to learn where zebra sharks get their name and what makes them so unique

Leopard_Shark
© Thomas Chardon

You’ve heard of great whites. You’ve heard of hammerheads. And you’ve probably heard of makos, whale sharks and bull sharks. But have you heard … of zebra sharks?

Move over, tiger sharks—there’s a new wildly-named elasmobranch species in town, and they’re here to show their stripes (sort of). Today, I’m here to walk you through seven sea-riously wild facts about this curious carpet shark species.

Where do zebra sharks get their name?

While tiger sharks claim their name from the trademark “tiger stripes,” zebra sharks are named specifically after their appearance as juveniles. As pups, zebra sharks bear bands of dark and light brownish-yellow, which eventually disperse into spots as a young shark reaches adulthood. These stripes don’t just go away for no reason, though; they’re actually quite the defense mechanism when it comes to keeping pups safe from prey. Shedd Aquarium explains that, upon first glance, predators may mistake a baby zebra shark’s striped tail for dangerous sea snakes, so these stripes serve a very sneaky but also very protective purpose.

Zebra sharks are much smaller as babies, and once they reach their full size as adults, the need for this mimicry tool is lessened.  Their spottier appearance assists them in camouflaging themselves against the sandy seafloor.

If they’re spotted as adults, why aren’t they called leopard sharks?

Well, the answer to this question really depends on whom you’re asking. There’s another species of shark (Triakis semifasciata) that is commonly referred to as a leopard shark here in the United States. In Australia, however, Stegostoma fasciatum (the species this blog is all about) is most commonly referred to as a leopard shark (not a zebra shark). All in all, you could technically not be incorrect if you were to call either of these species a zebra shark or a leopard shark … but if you’re really trying to be careful with specifics with species, scientific names are here to save the day.

Where do zebra sharks live?

These sharks are primarily found in Indo-Pacific waters, but they have also been known to be found in the Red Sea. They love sandy seafloors and are most commonly found on or near coral reefs where many of their favorite foods are known to thrive.

How big can these sharks grow to be?

Most sources note that zebra sharks tend to average between seven and nine feet in length, with the largest reported to be close to 12 feet long. One of the most interesting stats about their size, however, is that they have incredibly lengthy, powerful tails—which sometimes can make up nearly half their entire body length.

A drawing of a Zebra Shark representing its length
© Queensland State Archives

 Why do they appear to stay still for so long?

If you’ve ever seen a zebra shark (or footage/photos of one) during the daytime, the shark was more than likely either staying very still or moving very slowly. This is because zebra sharks are nocturnal, becoming the most active at night when they hunt. During the daytime, they are pretty chill creatures, resting on the sandy seafloor. This visual can actually be a pretty peculiar one to witness, as these sharks sometimes “stand” on their pectoral fins, resting with their mouths open while facing the direction of the current. Don’t worry, though; there’s a method to the zebra shark madness. Unlike many other sharks that have to continuously swim through the water to breathe, zebra sharks have special openings called spiracles that make it possible for them to actually pump the water over their gills themselves.

What do they eat?

A few favorite foods of zebra sharks include crunchy crustaceans and succulent shellfish, such as crabs, shrimp, snails and other benthic invertebrates. They are also known to eat some small fishes. With streamlined, flexible bodies and incredibly strong teeth, the zebra shark is known for its ability to wiggle and writhe into small, tight spaces where many of these prey normally reside. They also have two handy feelers at the bottom front of their snouts that enable them to easily feel around for snacks in the dark.

A Zebra Shark swims along the sea floor
© Sigmund Kyrre

Do zebra sharks lay eggs?

They sure do! Zebra sharks are in the approximate 40% of sharks that are oviparous (meaning they lay eggs). After a zebra shark’s eggs are fertilized, she lays them in tough, sturdy capsules. These casings have strong fibers that attach to the seafloor, keeping them secure until they hatch.

As you can see, zebra sharks represent a truly captivating shark species. Unfortunately, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) currently lists them as endangered. Here at Ocean Conservancy, we’re working with scientists, policy-makers and advocates like you to fight against climate change and ocean acidification, which are two major issues threatening both the health of reef-dwelling sharks as well as their habitat. Today, you can help support critical marine conservation projects that help our oceans’ sharks and their reef habitats with a donation. Join us today, and let’s help sharks like zebra sharks see a better tomorrow !

Then, be sure to visit SharkWeek.com for even more fin-credible shark content.

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