For the first time, researchers have observed a zebra or leopard shark switching from sexual to asexual production. The feat of the shark, which is named Leonie, could open the way to new methods on saving their species, which is currently endangered.
Leonie was caught in 1999 and currently lives in Reef HQ Aquarium in Queensland, Australia. Workers at the aquarium say that the shark actually had pups between 2008 and 2013 because of a male zebra shark.
However, when the male shark and Leonie got separated, she stopped having babies. However, Christine Dudgeon, lead author of the study, said that Leonie hatched three eggs back in April last year in spite of the absence of a mating partner for three mating seasons.
The researchers decided that Leonie gave birth because she was most likely storing sperms from her last mating encounter. They explain that relatives of zebra sharks have been known to be capable of storing sperms up to 45 months, suggesting that zebra sharks can also do the same.
This was later debunked when the research team tested the pups and using DNA fingerprinting, they found out that the pups only had cells from Leonie. The findings reveal that Leonie turned from sexual reproduction to asexual reproduction, the first time a shark that used to have a mating partner gave birth without one.
“Leonie adapted to her circumstances and we believe she switched because she lost her mate,” points out Dudgeon. “This has big implications for conservation and shows us how flexible the shark’s reproductive system really is. What we want to know now is could this occur in the wild and, if so, how often does it?”
The shark’s accomplishment could help preserve its species. For now, the team is planning to see if Leonie’s offsprings can go back to sexual reproduction if they grow up because asexual reproduction causes offsprings to lose genetic diversity.