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Mating injury kills Kentucky aquarium's shark ray

10:17 AM, Jul 24, 2013   |    comments
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Terry DeMio, The Cincinnati Enquirer

NEWPORT, Ky. - The newest shark ray in the city's aquarium died after a male attempted to mate with her, just days after she joined others in the largest display of shark rays in the world.

The female, estimated to be 6 years old, died Monday from internal bleeding, said Mark Dvornak, Newport Aquarium general curator.

"This is just a very unfortunate, kind of a freakish thing," he said.

The center of attention when she joined Shark Ray Bay on July 17, the female died before patrons could name her. Newport Aquarium, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, was in the midst of a Facebook contest to name her and had narrowed the suggestions to four when the female was injured Monday evening.

The shark ray's mating ritual is similar to that of sharks: The male chases the female and bites down on a front fin to hold her. This time, the male shark ray missed and bit the new shark ray's abdomen, Dvornak said.

"Mating is kind of a violent act," he said. "Everybody thinks of roses and chocolate. There is nothing romantic about it."

It is not uncommon in the wild to find sharks and shark rays with scarring and bite marks, the aquarium's curator said.

"Most of the time, the females will survive," Dvornak said. "Sharks have an amazing ability to heal."

Aquarium staff noticed Monday evening that their newest shark ray was not functioning well in the water with her four companions.

"We knew through her behavior something was amiss," Dvornak said.

The aquarium's veterinary team and marine biology staff immediately removed her from the exhibit, examined and treated her. Through an ultrasound, they were able to identify the injury and bleeding, Dvornak said.

This newest shark ray, more than 6 feet long and 230 pounds, was similar in size to three other shark rays who live at the aquarium. The species can reach 8 or 9 feet in length and weigh up to about 300 pounds. The smallest shark ray at the aquarium is Spike, who weighs about 200 pounds.

All of the Newport Aquarium shark rays were collected from waters surrounding Taiwan.

The animals are shipped in a container of about 8 feet in diameter with proper ratios of sea water and pure oxygen, Dvornak said. He tries to arrange for direct flights to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, which is a U.S. Fish and Wildlife clearing port. From there, Newport Aquarium experts meet the flight with extra oxygen, sometimes extra water, testing equipment and a rented container truck, then drive the animal home.

Newport Aquarium would not release the cost of the shark rays or their transport.

Sweet Pea was acquired in 2005 and holds the distinction of being the first shark ray in the Western Hemisphere. Through the years, as the aquarium has acquired new shark rays, visitors and people on social media had been invited to help name the new arrivals.

Sweet Pea, Scooter, Sunshine and Spike surfaced in a newly renovated exhibit, a theater complete with a bubble curtain, in March. The four shark rays elicit excitement from visitors as the unusual creatures - with characteristics similar to sharks and sting rays - swim through their simulated ocean just as they do in their native Eastern Hemisphere waters.

In March, Director of Husbandry Chris Pierson said the aquarium biologists were hopeful the shark rays would breed.

Biologists don't know how frequently the creatures breed, and Newport Aquarium biologists were hoping to learn more. No shark ray pups have been born at the aquarium, spokeswoman Lynn Margason said. The animal's usual lifespan is unclear.

On Tuesday, Newport Aquarium tweeted the loss of their newest shark ray, stating, "We are heartbroken."

"It's really sad," Margason said. "She was just an exquisite animal."

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