Aquarium's shark ray pregnant for first time

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NEWPORT, Ky. (AP) -- Sweet Pea is pregnant.

The shark ray at the Newport Aquarium in northern Kentucky is expecting as many as six pups. Aquarium officials say this marks the first time a shark ray has become pregnant while in captivity.

Sweet Pea was the first shark ray to go on display in the Western Hemisphere. She arrived at the Newport Aquarium in 2005 as an adolescent. Two years later, the addition of a rare male shark ray named Scooter resulted in the establishment of the institution's Shark Ray Breeding Program.

The aquarium's general curator, Mark Dvornak, told The Kentucky Enquirer (http://bit.ly/1eIz39w ) that after the pups are born, some will go on display in Newport while others will likely go to other aquariums and zoos.

"We are thrilled with this development," Dvornak said. "The pregnancy is a testament to the hard work and dedication our husbandry and veterinary teams have given these many years to better understand these remarkable animals."

Dvornak said Newport Aquarium is considered a leader in the husbandry of shark rays and is often consulted by staff at aquariums and zoos throughout the world. He added little is known about the prehistoric-looking creature typically found in tropical waters such as the Indian Ocean, the western Pacific and the Red Sea. Because of their wide heads and fins, shark rays appear to be a cross between a sting ray and a shark.

Shark rays often are slaughtered for their large fins, which has led to them being listed as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Dvornak said. Other threats include pollution, destruction of their habitats and overfishing.

A few weeks ago, the biologists who care for the Newport Aquarium's four shark rays on a daily basis noticed that Sweet Pea was putting on weight. The pregnancy of the 200-plus pound shark ray was confirmed on Jan. 8 after an ultrasound performed by Dr. Peter Hill and the Newport Aquarium husbandry staff.

"Should these pups survive, it'll be a great opportunity for us to really study the species," Dvornak said. He added staff will track everything from the newborns' growth rate to their food consumption.

Little is known about shark rays, including their life span and gestation period. However, aquarium staff believes Sweet Pea is close to her due date. For the protection of her pups, who could become food for predators, Sweet Pea will stay in an offsite facility for the rest of her gestation period.

"Our divers have seen the shark rays mating, but we're not exactly sure when she became pregnant," Dvornak said.

Even though Sweet Pea won't be on display in the near future, visitors to the Newport Aquarium can still see three other shark rays - Sunshine, Scooter and Spike.

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Online: www.NewportAquarium.com

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Information from: The Kentucky Enquirer, http://www.nky.com