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Playing Tag With Lemon Sharks
Scientists are tagging female lemon sharks off Jupiter, Florida to solve the mystery of where they mate and give birth.
The lemon sharks that flock to Jupiter each winter are important study subjects because they are scientists’ best hope of unlocking the mysteries of the species’ life history and biology.
First observed by underwater photographer Walt Stearns in 2001, large males and females gather by the score near wrecks and reefs, lying quietly on the bottom by day and foraging for food by night. Kessel and Samuel “Doc” Gruber — professor emeritus at University of Miami who has been studying lemon sharks for more than 50 years — at first believed they were there to mate and that they might be giving birth in the Indian River Lagoon. But no mating activity ever was observed, and there was no evidence of pupping nearby.
Tagging data revealed the animals that showed up in Jupiter “blasted out of there” in April and headed to the Carolinas, according to Gruber.
He now believes that’s where the animals give birth, probably in shallow estuaries. Jupiter, he said, is sort of a snowbird destination for lemons seeking consistent water temperatures in the low 70s and an abundant food supply during the cold winter months.
Apex predators that are slow to mature and produce few young, lemons won protected status in Florida waters last year. But once those sharks swim into federal waters more than three miles offshore, they are fair game for fishermen.
Kessel and Gruber would like to see protection for the animals extended up and down the South Atlantic coast. They believe their chances at winning federal approval will be much stronger if they can prove where the lemons mate and give birth. They plan to track a group of lemon sharks to Eleuthera in the Bahamas next month to try to witness mating, and then head to the Carolinas in summer to try to locate some pups.
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