While great white sharks have fascinated the public for decades, there are still some things scientists don’t know about the life cycles of these large fish—for example, the sites where they mate or give birth have remained largely unknown.
But now, a new discovery may provide some insight into these questions. Researchers have reported what might be an incredibly rare sighting of a newborn white shark—and they published images of the baby today in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes.
They captured video footage of the young shark, which “was unlike anything we had ever seen before,” Phillip Sternes, a co-author of the study and organismal biologist at the University of California, Riverside, tells Science’s Freda Kreier.
The researchers observed the shark with a drone camera off the coast of Carpinteria, California, near Santa Barbara. They think it’s a newborn in part because of its size—the shark was only around five feet long—and also because of a white layer coating the creature, which they suggest could be an intrauterine substance.
“Where white sharks actually give birth to their pups remains one of the ocean’s great mysteries,” Tobey Curtis, a shark ecologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who was not involved in the research, tells the Washington Post’s Carolyn Y. Johnson in an email. “Observations of free-swimming newborn white sharks are extremely rare, and any new video or photographic evidence may be very valuable.”
White sharks live in every ocean in the world. Near the United States, they dwell along both coasts—from Maine to the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean in the Atlantic, and from Alaska to California and Hawaii in the Pacific.
The sharks’ numbers declined in the 20th century due to a number of human activities, including overfishing, illegal poaching and trophy hunting. White sharks are considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and are now widely protected around the globe.
Since scientists don’t know where white sharks give birth, they haven’t observed many when they are very young. Only three or four white sharks under a year old had previously been seen in the wild, Charles Underwood, who studies shark paleontology and evolution at Birkbeck, University of London, and did not contribute to the recent findings, tells New Scientist’s Matthew Sparkes.
It has been “nearly impossible to be in the exact right place at the exact right time to observe and document the moment of birth,” Curtis says to Science.
But on July 9, 2023, Sternes and Carlos Gauna, a wildlife filmmaker and co-author of the study, captured the unique footage of the seemingly newborn shark. While white sharks typically appear white on the bottom and gray on top, the milky substance around this shark made it completely pale.
Beyond its color and size, a few other factors pointed to the shark being a newborn. For one, it had rounded fin tips seen in white shark embryos and young white sharks. The place the shark appeared had previously been proposed as a possible spot for white shark births, and the timing lined up with predictions. Further, the researchers had spotted mature white sharks in the area during the days prior.
While the researchers suggest the white layer, which the shark was in the process of shedding, is an intrauterine fluid, they also acknowledge it could be a sign of some skin disorder on an older than newborn shark.
Christopher Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, who was not involved in the research, tells the Washington Post that while the fish is “definitely a young shark,” he favors the skin condition theory.
Scientists will need to conduct more research to test these two theories. But if the shark is in fact a newborn, it could signal that more effort should be put into protecting the area for white shark conservation, the study authors write.