Researchers in California may have gotten the first ever look at a newborn great white shark, which they captured in drone images taken last summer.
The newborn animal has never before been spotted in the wild. But in July, the wildlife film-maker Carlos Gauna and Phillip Sternes, a biology doctoral student at the University of California, Riverside, glimpsed something unexpected in the waters near Santa Barbara on California’s central coast.
Gauna’s drone camera captured what appeared to be a great white shark pup, about 5ft long and pure white – an unusual coloring as the sharks are white on the bottom and gray on top.
“We enlarged the images, put them in slow motion, and realized the white layer was being shed from the body as it was swimming,” Sternes said in a university statement. “I believe it was a newborn white shark shedding its embryonic layer.”
Sternes and Gauna, who have filmed sharks around the world in YouTube videos that have millions of views, documented their findings in an article published this week in the Environmental Biology of Fishes journal.
In the article, the pair acknowledge the thin white film covering the shark could have been the result of a skin condition, but they say they believe it was a newborn great white. The animal they saw was within the size range of newborn sharks and its appearance was similar to near-term embryos, they wrote.
Gauna said he had previously observed large great whites in the area that appeared pregnant and the newborn shark emerged within the time frame that pups are birthed. In the university statement, he described the finding as “one of the holy grails of shark science. No one has ever been able to pinpoint where they are born, nor has anyone seen a newborn baby shark alive.”
They suspect the animal they documented was days or hours old.
“There are a lot of hypothetical areas, but despite intense interest in these sharks, no one’s seen a birth or a newborn pup in the wild,” Sternes said. “This may well be the first evidence we have of a pup in the wild, making this a definitive birthing location.”
Experts in the field mostly hailed the find in comments to CNN, calling the observation “hugely significant”.