Zebra shark
The zebra shark is a species of carpet shark
Carpet shark
The carpet sharks are an order, Orectolobiformes, of sharks, so called because many members have ornate patterns reminiscent of carpets....

 and the sole member of the family Stegostomatidae. It is found throughout the tropical Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific is a biogeographic region of the Earth's seas, comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia...

, frequenting coral reef
Coral reef
Coral reefs are underwater structures made from calcium carbonate secreted by corals. Coral reefs are colonies of tiny living animals found in marine waters that contain few nutrients. Most coral reefs are built from stony corals, which in turn consist of polyps that cluster in groups. The polyps...

s and sandy flats to a depth of 62 m (210 ft). Adult zebra sharks are distinctive in appearance, with five longitudinal ridges on a cylindrical body, a low caudal fin comprising nearly half the total length, and a pattern of dark spots on a pale background. Young zebra sharks under 50–90 cm (20–35 in) long have a completely different pattern, consisting of light vertical stripes on a brown background, and lack the ridges. This species attains a length of 2.5 m (8.2 ft).

Zebra sharks are nocturnal and spend most of the day resting motionless on the sea floor. At night, they actively hunt for molluscs, crustacean
Crustaceans form a very large group of arthropods, usually treated as a subphylum, which includes such familiar animals as crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill and barnacles. The 50,000 described species range in size from Stygotantulus stocki at , to the Japanese spider crab with a leg span...

s, small bony fishes, and possibly sea snakes inside holes and crevices in the reef. Though solitary for most of the year, they form large seasonal aggregations. The zebra shark is oviparous: females produce several dozen large egg capsules
Mermaid's purse
An egg case or egg capsule, colloquially known as a mermaid's purse or devil's purse, is a casing that surrounds the fertilized eggs of some sharks, skates, and chimaeras. They are among the common objects which are washed up by the sea. They are made of collagen protein strands...

, which they anchor to underwater structures via adhesive tendrils. Innocuous to humans and hardy in captivity, zebra sharks are popular subjects of ecotourism
Ecotourism is a form of tourism visiting fragile, pristine, and usually protected areas, intended as a low impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial tourism...

 dives and public aquaria. The World Conservation Union
World Conservation Union
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources is an international organization dedicated to finding "pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges." The organization publishes the IUCN Red List, compiling information from a network of...

 has assessed this species as Vulnerable
Vulnerable species
On 30 January 2010, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species identified 9694 Vulnerable species, subspecies and varieties, stocks and sub-populations.-References:...

 worldwide, as it is taken by commercial fisheries
Commercial fishing
Commercial fishing is the activity of catching fish and other seafood for commercial profit, mostly from wild fisheries. It provides a large quantity of food to many countries around the world, but those who practice it as an industry must often pursue fish far into the ocean under adverse conditions...

 across most of its range (except off Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

) for meat, fins, and liver oil
Shark liver oil
Shark liver oil is obtained from sharks that are caught for food purposes and are living in cold, deep oceans. The liver oil from sharks has been used by fishermen for centuries as a folk remedy for general health...

. There is evidence that its numbers are dwindling.


The zebra shark was first described as Squalus varius by Seba in 1758. No type specimen was designated, though Seba included a comprehensive description in Latin
Latin is an Italic language originally spoken in Latium and Ancient Rome. It, along with most European languages, is a descendant of the ancient Proto-Indo-European language. Although it is considered a dead language, a number of scholars and members of the Christian clergy speak it fluently, and...

 and an accurate illustration of a juvenile. Müller and Henle placed this species in the genus Stegostoma in 1837, using the specific epithet fasciatus (or the neuter form
Grammatical gender
Grammatical gender is defined linguistically as a system of classes of nouns which trigger specific types of inflections in associated words, such as adjectives, verbs and others. For a system of noun classes to be a gender system, every noun must belong to one of the classes and there should be...

 fasciatum, as Stegostoma is neuter while Squalus is masculine) from an 1801 work by Bloch and Schneider. In 1984, Compagno rejected the name "varius/m" in favor of "fasciatus/m" for the zebra shark, because Seba did not consistently use binomial nomenclature
Binomial nomenclature
Binomial nomenclature is a formal system of naming species of living things by giving each a name composed of two parts, both of which use Latin grammatical forms, although they can be based on words from other languages...

 in his species descriptions (though Squalus varius is one that can be construed as a binomial name). In Compagno's view, the first proper usage of "varius/m" was by Garman in 1913, making it a junior synonym
Synonym (taxonomy)
In scientific nomenclature, a synonym is a scientific name that is or was used for a taxon of organisms that also goes by a different scientific name. For example, Linnaeus was the first to give a scientific name to the Norway spruce, which he called Pinus abies...

. Both S. fasciatum and S. varium are currently in wide usage for this species.

The genus name is derived from the Greek stego meaning "covered", and stoma meaning "mouth". The specific epithet fasciatum means "banded", referring to the striped pattern of the juvenile. The juvenile coloration is also the origin of the common name
Common name
A common name of a taxon or organism is a name in general use within a community; it is often contrasted with the scientific name for the same organism...

 "zebra shark". The name "leopard shark" is sometimes applied to the spotted adult, but that name usually refers to the houndshark Triakis semifasciata, and is also sometimes used for the tiger shark
Tiger shark
The tiger sharks, Galeocerdo cuvier, is a species of requiem shark and the only member of the genus Galeocerdo. Commonly known as sea tigers, tiger sharks are relatively large macropredators, capable of attaining a length of over . It is found in many tropical and temperate waters, and is...

 (Galeocerdo cuvier). Due to their different color patterns and body proportions, both juveniles and subadults have historically been described as separate species (Squalus tigrinus and S. longicaudatus respectively).


There is robust morphological
Morphology (biology)
In biology, morphology is a branch of bioscience dealing with the study of the form and structure of organisms and their specific structural features....

 support for the placement of the zebra shark, the whale shark
Whale shark
The whale shark, Rhincodon typus, is a slow-moving filter feeding shark, the largest extant fish species. The largest confirmed individual had a length of and a weight of more than , but unconfirmed claims report considerably larger whale sharks...

 (Rhincodon typus), and the nurse sharks (Ginglymostoma cirratum, Nebrius ferrugineus, and Pseudoginglymostoma brevicaudatum) in a single clade
A clade is a group consisting of a species and all its descendants. In the terms of biological systematics, a clade is a single "branch" on the "tree of life". The idea that such a "natural group" of organisms should be grouped together and given a taxonomic name is central to biological...

. However, the interrelationships between these taxa are disputed by various authors. Dingerkus (1986) suggested that the whale shark is the closest relative of the zebra shark, and proposed a single family encompassing all five species in the clade. Compagno (1988) suggested affinity between this species and either Pseudoginglymostoma or a clade containing Rhincodon, Ginglymostoma, and Nebrius. Goto (2001) placed the zebra shark as the sister group to a clade containing Rhincodon and Ginglymostoma.

Distribution and habitat

The zebra shark occurs in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific
The Indo-Pacific is a biogeographic region of the Earth's seas, comprising the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean, the western and central Pacific Ocean, and the seas connecting the two in the general area of Indonesia...

 region, from South Africa
South Africa
The Republic of South Africa is a country in southern Africa. Located at the southern tip of Africa, it is divided into nine provinces, with of coastline on the Atlantic and Indian oceans...

 to the Red Sea
Red Sea
The Red Sea is a seawater inlet of the Indian Ocean, lying between Africa and Asia. The connection to the ocean is in the south through the Bab el Mandeb strait and the Gulf of Aden. In the north, there is the Sinai Peninsula, the Gulf of Aqaba, and the Gulf of Suez...

 and the Persian Gulf
Persian Gulf
The Persian Gulf, in Southwest Asia, is an extension of the Indian Ocean located between Iran and the Arabian Peninsula.The Persian Gulf was the focus of the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War, in which each side attacked the other's oil tankers...

 (including Madagascar
The Republic of Madagascar is an island country located in the Indian Ocean off the southeastern coast of Africa...

 and the Maldives
The Maldives , , officially Republic of Maldives , also referred to as the Maldive Islands, is an island nation in the Indian Ocean formed by a double chain of twenty-six atolls oriented north-south off India's Lakshadweep islands, between Minicoy Island and...

), to India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 and Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia, South-East Asia, South East Asia or Southeastern Asia is a subregion of Asia, consisting of the countries that are geographically south of China, east of India, west of New Guinea and north of Australia. The region lies on the intersection of geological plates, with heavy seismic...

 (including Indonesia
Indonesia , officially the Republic of Indonesia , is a country in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Indonesia is an archipelago comprising approximately 13,000 islands. It has 33 provinces with over 238 million people, and is the world's fourth most populous country. Indonesia is a republic, with an...

, the Philippines
The Philippines , officially known as the Republic of the Philippines , is a country in Southeast Asia in the western Pacific Ocean. To its north across the Luzon Strait lies Taiwan. West across the South China Sea sits Vietnam...

, and Palau
Palau , officially the Republic of Palau , is an island nation in the Pacific Ocean, east of the Philippines and south of Tokyo. In 1978, after three decades as being part of the United Nations trusteeship, Palau chose independence instead of becoming part of the Federated States of Micronesia, a...

), northward to Taiwan
Taiwan , also known, especially in the past, as Formosa , is the largest island of the same-named island group of East Asia in the western Pacific Ocean and located off the southeastern coast of mainland China. The island forms over 99% of the current territory of the Republic of China following...

 and Japan
Japan is an island nation in East Asia. Located in the Pacific Ocean, it lies to the east of the Sea of Japan, China, North Korea, South Korea and Russia, stretching from the Sea of Okhotsk in the north to the East China Sea and Taiwan in the south...

, eastward to New Caledonia
New Caledonia
New Caledonia is a special collectivity of France located in the southwest Pacific Ocean, east of Australia and about from Metropolitan France. The archipelago, part of the Melanesia subregion, includes the main island of Grande Terre, the Loyalty Islands, the Belep archipelago, the Isle of...

 and Tonga
Tonga, officially the Kingdom of Tonga , is a state and an archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean, comprising 176 islands scattered over of ocean in the South Pacific...

, and southward to northern Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...


Bottom-dwelling in nature, the zebra shark is found from the intertidal zone
Intertidal zone
The intertidal zone is the area that is above water at low tide and under water at high tide . This area can include many different types of habitats, with many types of animals like starfish, sea urchins, and some species of coral...

 to a depth of 62 m (210 ft) over the continental and insular shelves. Adults and large juveniles frequent coral reef
Coral reef
Coral reefs are underwater structures made from calcium carbonate secreted by corals. Coral reefs are colonies of tiny living animals found in marine waters that contain few nutrients. Most coral reefs are built from stony corals, which in turn consist of polyps that cluster in groups. The polyps...

s, rubble, and sandy areas. There are unsubstantiated reports of this species from fresh water
Fresh Water
Fresh Water is the debut album by Australian rock and blues singer Alison McCallum, released in 1972. Rare for an Australian artist at the time, it came in a gatefold sleeve...

 in the Philippines. Zebra sharks sometimes cross oceanic waters
Pelagic zone
Any water in a sea or lake that is not close to the bottom or near to the shore can be said to be in the pelagic zone. The word pelagic comes from the Greek πέλαγος or pélagos, which means "open sea". The pelagic zone can be thought of in terms of an imaginary cylinder or water column that goes...

 to reach isolated seamount
A seamount is a mountain rising from the ocean seafloor that does not reach to the water's surface , and thus is not an island. These are typically formed from extinct volcanoes, that rise abruptly and are usually found rising from a seafloor of depth. They are defined by oceanographers as...

s. Movements of up to 140 km (87 mi) have been recorded for individual sharks. However, genetic data indicates that there is little exchange between populations of zebra sharks, even if their ranges are contiguous.


The zebra shark has a cylindrical body with a large, slightly flattened head and a short, blunt snout. The eyes are small and placed on the sides of the head; the spiracle
Spiracles are openings on the surface of some animals that usually lead to respiratory systems.-Vertebrates:The spiracle is a small hole behind each eye that opens to the mouth in some fishes. In the primitive jawless fish the first gill opening immediately behind the mouth is essentially similar...

s are located behind them and are as large or larger. The last 3 of the 5 short gill slit
Gill slit
Gill slits are individual openings to gills, i.e., multiple gill arches, which lack a single outer cover. Such gills are characteristic of Cartilaginous fish such as sharks, rays, sawfish, and guitarfish. Most of these have five pairs, but a few species have 6 or 7 pairs...

s are situated over the pectoral fin bases, and the fourth and fifth slits are much closer together than the others. Each nostril
A nostril is one of the two channels of the nose, from the point where they bifurcate to the external opening. In birds and mammals, they contain branched bones or cartilages called turbinates, whose function is to warm air on inhalation and remove moisture on exhalation...

 has a short barbel
Barbel (anatomy)
A barbel on a fish is a slender, whiskerlike tactile organ near the mouth. Fish that have barbels include the catfish, the carp, the goatfish, sturgeon, the zebrafish and some species of shark...

 and a groove running from it to the mouth. The mouth is nearly straight, with three lobes on the lower lip and furrows at the corners. There are 28–33 tooth rows in the upper jaw and 22–32 tooth rows in the lower jaw; each tooth has a large central cusp flanked by two smaller ones.

There are five distinctive ridges running along the body in adults, one along the dorsal midline and two on the sides. The dorsal midline ridge merges into the first dorsal fin
Dorsal fin
A dorsal fin is a fin located on the backs of various unrelated marine and freshwater vertebrates, including most fishes, marine mammals , and the ichthyosaurs...

, placed about halfway along the body and twice the size of the second dorsal fin. The pectoral fins are large and broad; the pelvic and anal fins are much smaller but larger than the second dorsal fin. The caudal fin is almost as long as the rest of the body, with a barely developed lower lobe and a strong ventral notch near the tip of the upper lobe. The zebra shark attains a length of 2.5 m (8.2 ft), with an unsubstantiated record of 3.5 m (11.5 ft). Males and females are not dimorphic in size
Sexual dimorphism
Sexual dimorphism is a phenotypic difference between males and females of the same species. Examples of such differences include differences in morphology, ornamentation, and behavior.-Examples:-Ornamentation / coloration:...


The color pattern in young sharks is dark brown above and light yellow below, with vertical yellow stripes and spots. As the shark grows to 50–90 cm (20–35 in) long, the dark areas begin to break up, changing the general pattern from light-on-dark stripes to dark-on-light spots. There is substantial variation in pattern amongst adults, which can be used to identify particular individuals. In 1964, a partially albino
Albinism is a congenital disorder characterized by the complete or partial absence of pigment in the skin, hair and eyes due to absence or defect of an enzyme involved in the production of melanin...

 zebra shark completely lacking spots was discovered in the Indian Ocean. The shark, a 1.9 m (6.2 ft) long mature female, was unusual in that albino animals rarely survive long in the wild due to their lack of crypsis
In ecology, crypsis is the ability of an organism to avoid observation or detection by other organisms. It may be either a predation strategy or an antipredator adaptation, and methods include camouflage, nocturnality, subterranean lifestyle, transparency, and mimicry...


Biology and ecology

During the day, zebra sharks are sluggish and usually found resting on the sea bottom, sometimes using their pectoral fins to prop up the front part of their bodies and facing into the current with their mouths open to facilitate respiration
Respiration (physiology)
'In physiology, respiration is defined as the transport of oxygen from the outside air to the cells within tissues, and the transport of carbon dioxide in the opposite direction...

. Reef channels are favored resting spots, since the tightened space yields faster, more oxygenated water. They become more active at night or when food becomes available. Zebra sharks are strong and agile swimmers, propelling themselves with pronounced anguilliform (eel
Eels are an order of fish, which consists of four suborders, 20 families, 111 genera and approximately 800 species. Most eels are predators...

-like) undulations of the body and tail. In a steady current, they have been seen hovering in place with sinuous waves of their tails.

The zebra shark feeds primarily on shelled molluscs, though it also takes crustacean
Crustaceans form a very large group of arthropods, usually treated as a subphylum, which includes such familiar animals as crabs, lobsters, crayfish, shrimp, krill and barnacles. The 50,000 described species range in size from Stygotantulus stocki at , to the Japanese spider crab with a leg span...

s, small bony fishes, and possibly sea snakes. The slender, flexible body of this shark allows it to wriggle into narrow holes and crevices in search of food, while its small mouth and thickly muscled buccal cavity allow it to create a powerful suction force with which to extract prey. This species may be preyed upon by larger fishes and marine mammals. Known parasites of the zebra shark include four species of tapeworms in the genus Pedibothrium.


Zebra sharks are usually solitary, though aggregations of 20–50 individuals have been recorded. Off southeast Queensland
Queensland is a state of Australia, occupying the north-eastern section of the mainland continent. It is bordered by the Northern Territory, South Australia and New South Wales to the west, south-west and south respectively. To the east, Queensland is bordered by the Coral Sea and Pacific Ocean...

, aggregations of several hundred zebra sharks form every summer in shallow water. These aggregations consist entirely of large adults, with females outnumbering males by almost three to one. The purpose of these aggregations is yet unclear; no definite mating behavior has been observed between the sharks. There is an observation of an adult male zebra shark biting the pectoral fin of another adult male and pushing him against the sea floor; the second male was turned on his back, and remained motionless for several minutes. This behavior resembles pre-copulatory behaviors between male and female sharks, and in both cases the biting and holding of the pectoral fin has been speculated to relate to one shark asserting dominance over the other.

Life history

The courtship behavior of the zebra shark consists of the male following the female and biting vigorously at her pectoral fins and tail, with periods in which he holds onto her pectoral fin and both sharks lie still on the bottom. On occasion this leads to mating, in which the male curls his body around the female and inserts one of his claspers into her cloaca
In zoological anatomy, a cloaca is the posterior opening that serves as the only such opening for the intestinal, reproductive, and urinary tracts of certain animal species...

. Copulation lasts for two to five minutes. The zebra shark is oviparous, with females laying large egg capsules measuring 17 cm (7 in) long, 8 cm (3 in) wide, and 5 cm (2 in) thick. The egg case is dark brown to purple in color, and has hair-like fibers along the sides that secure it to the substrate. The adhesive fibers emerge first from the female's vent; the female circles vertical structures such as reef outcroppings to entangle the fibers, so as to anchor the eggs. Females have been documented laying up to 46 eggs over a 112-day period. Eggs are deposited in batches of around four. Reproductive seasonality in the wild is unknown.

In captivity, the eggs hatch after four to six months, depending on temperature. The hatchlings measure 20–36 cm (8–14 in) long and have proportionately longer tails than adults. The habitat preferences of juveniles are unclear; one report places them at depths greater than 50 m (160 ft), while another report from India suggests they inhabit shallower water than adults. The stripes of the juveniles may have an anti-predator function, making each individual in a group harder to target. Males attain sexual maturity at 1.5–1.8 m (4.9–5.9 ft) long, and females at 1.7 m (5.6 ft) long. The lifespan has been estimated to be 25–30 years in the wild.

Human interactions

Docile and slow-moving, zebra sharks are not dangerous to humans and can be easily approached underwater. However, they have bitten divers who pull on their tails or attempt to ride them. As of 2008 there is one record of an unprovoked attack in the International Shark Attack File
International Shark Attack File
The International Shark Attack File is a global database of shark attacks. It began as an attempt to catalogue shark attacks on servicemen during World War II. The Office of Naval Research funded it from 1958 until 1968. During that time a panel of shark experts developed a standard system for...

, though no injuries resulted. They are popular attractions for ecotourist divers in the Red Sea, off the Maldives, off Thailand
Thailand , officially the Kingdom of Thailand , formerly known as Siam , is a country located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is bordered to the north by Burma and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the...

's Phuket and Phi Phi islands, on the Great Barrier Reef
Great Barrier Reef
The Great Barrier Reef is the world'slargest reef system composed of over 2,900 individual reefs and 900 islands stretching for over 2,600 kilometres over an area of approximately...

, and elsewhere. Many zebra sharks at diving sites have become accustomed to the presence of humans, taking food from divers' hands and allowing themselves to be touched. The zebra shark adapts well to captivity and is displayed by a number of public aquaria around the world. The small, attractively colored young also find their way into the hands of private hobbyists, though this species grows far too large for the home aquarium.

The zebra shark is taken by commercial fisheries across most of its range, using bottom trawls, gillnet
Gillnetting is a common fishing method used by commercial and artisanal fishermen of all the oceans and in some freshwater and estuary areas. The gillnet also is used by fisheries scientists to monitor fish populations. Because gillnets can be so effective their use is closely monitored and...

s, and longlines. The meat is sold fresh or dried and salted for human consumption. Furthermore, the liver oil is used for vitamin
A vitamin is an organic compound required as a nutrient in tiny amounts by an organism. In other words, an organic chemical compound is called a vitamin when it cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities by an organism, and must be obtained from the diet. Thus, the term is conditional both on...

s, the fins for shark fin soup
Shark fin soup
Shark fin soup is a popular soup item of Chinese cuisine usually served at special occasions such as weddings and banquets, or as a luxury item in Chinese culture. The shark fins provide texture while the taste comes from the other soup ingredients.There is controversy over the practice of shark...

, and the offal
Offal , also called, especially in the United States, variety meats or organ meats, refers to the internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal. The word does not refer to a particular list of edible organs, which varies by culture and region, but includes most internal organs other than...

 for fishmeal. Zebra sharks are highly susceptible to localized depletion due to their shallow habitat and low levels of dispersal between populations, and market surveys suggest that they are much less common now than in the past. They are also threatened by the degradation of their coral reef habitat by human development, and by destructive fishing practices such as dynamiting or poisoning. As a result, the World Conservation Union has assessed this species as Vulnerable. Off Australia, the only threat to this species is a very low level of bycatch
The term “bycatch” is usually used for fish caught unintentionally in a fishery while intending to catch other fish. It may however also indicate untargeted catch in other forms of animal harvesting or collecting...

 in prawn
Prawns are decapod crustaceans of the sub-order Dendrobranchiata. There are 540 extant species, in seven families, and a fossil record extending back to the Devonian...

 trawls, and there it has been assessed as of Least Concern
Least Concern
Least Concern is an IUCN category assigned to extant taxon or lower taxa which have been evaluated but do not qualify for any other category. As such they do not qualify as threatened, Near Threatened, or Conservation Dependent...


External links

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