The Zebra Shark (also known as Leopard Shark) is a large, distinctive shark that inhabits shallow coral reef environments in tropical waters. In search of food, it may slide into small crevices and caves. Due to its changing appearance as it gets older, divers frequently mistake it for the leopard shark, which causes confusion. Zebra sharks are born with dark brown bodies and yellowish stripes, but as they age, they lose the stripes and develop little black spots on their tan bodies, giving them a leopard shark-like appearance.
Small fish, snails, sea urchins, crabs, and other small invertebrates hide in cracks, and zebra sharks are nocturnal foragers. The zebra shark’s anatomy is admirably equipped for scooping up prey, even if they don’t look as vicious as their toothy relatives. Barbels, or whisker-like organs at the front of their snouts, aid in prey detection, and a flexible body allow them to wiggle into narrow areas where little fish hide. Zebra sharks have small jaws and strong gill muscles, allowing them to swallow fish whole in one gulp. The zebra shark prefers to lie on the ocean floor facing the current during the day so that they may efficiently pump water over their gills and breathe while remaining stationary. This slow-moving shark species has been seen “surfing,” shifting its fins to remain still in open water when the current is strong enough.
Male Zebra sharks use claspers, or modifications of the pelvic fins, to transmit sperm to the female during reproduction, and the female can lay up to four eggs at a time. Fine fibres surround the egg casings, keeping them fixed to the sea floor for around six and a half months while they mature. A Zebra shark pup may be less than a foot long when born, but an adult can grow to be about 12 feet long with a tail that spans half the length of its body. Adult Zebra sharks are non-aggressive and have few predators to save larger shark species that might snag one in their jaws.
Humans, like other sharks, pose the greatest threat to zebra sharks. The zebra shark is caught by a variety of inshore fishermen and coveted for its meat, which is sold fresh or salt-dried in markets in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and other parts of the world. Its liver is also processed for vitamins, and its fins are sliced off for use in traditional Chinese delicacy shark fin soup. Although shark finning is prohibited in US waters, fins can nevertheless be purchased and sold from unsustainable foreign fisheries that lack or ineffectively enforce shark finning regulations.
The combination of these practices is reducing zebra shark numbers over most of their area, and the IUCN Red List classifies them as endangered. The species is classified Least Concern in Australia because it has a wide distribution and is not regularly fished.