Newport Aquarium's research on shark rays is shared worldwide

The shark display at the Newport Aquarium has thrilled visitors for years, but its shark program is about more than entertainment.

Its work with one species in particular, the rare shark ray, has helped teach scientists around the world about this endangered amphibian. Shark rays, so named because they have a wide, flat head with a rounded snout, like a ray, and sharklike dorsal and tail fins, are considered endangered largely because of a loss of habitat and overfishing. 

Newport Aquarium biologists began working with shark rays in 2005, when the first one arrived and was named Sweet Pea. She eventually became the first shark ray in the world to be target trained, a method that rewards the animal for allowing biologists to perform physicals and collect data.

In 2007, Newport Aquarium welcomed its first male shark ray, Scooter, marking the beginning of the world’s first ever shark ray breeding program. Breeding the rare species can be difficult. Newport Aquarium announced in January 2014 that Sweet Pea had become pregnant and given birth to seven pups, but by February 2014, all seven had died. In 2016, Sweet Pea gave birth to nine shark pups.

A third ray, named Sunshine, arrived at the aquarium in 2009, and was on display in its Coral Reef Exhibit before transferring to the Aquarium’s offsite research holding facility. She has since joined the rest of the Shark Ray group in the Aquarium’s “Surrounded By Sharks” exhibit.

Over the years, Newport Aquarium Animal Health and Quarantine Manager Jolene Hanna and Senior Biologist Jen Hazeres have shared their research across the globe on shark ray hormone cycles and reproduction. They collaborate with the American Elasmobranch Society, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and publish work in scientific journals. Their work has helped contribute to the industry standards and practices of caring for the entire shark ray species.

Hazeres has been working with and caring for the shark rays since the very beginning.  “After diving and working with them for so many years we have learned that they are engaging, intelligent and individually unique,” she says. “It’s been humbling and incredible to have this opportunity.” She also serve as the American Zoos and Aquariums Species Survival Coordinator for shark rays.