If someone told you there were a lot of sharks in New York, you’d probably think they were referring to ruthless career climbers. But the Wildlife Conservation Society's New York Aquarium announced this week that the waters of Great South Bay—a lagoon that sits between Long Island and Fire Island—is teeming with real-life baby sand tiger sharks. Only a few sand tiger shark nursery grounds have ever been identified, including one in Massachusetts, which makes the site an exciting find for scientists.
The Washington Post reports that researchers tagged and monitored sharks in regional waters, then spent four years tracking their whereabouts. They noticed that many of the tagged sharks kept swimming back to the same section of Great South Bay, a phenomenon that’s referred to as “site fidelity.”
The WCS says that the sharks are born down south, and swim north in the spring. There, they spend summers feeding and growing in the safety of the nursery before swimming back south in the fall. The process repeats until the animals are as old as 5.
According to Discovery News, experts say there must be some special reason the baby sharks choose to congregate in these particular waters. The location is likely a food source, and since the bay’s so close to traffic, the whizzing cars might keep the sharks’ predators at bay. Still, no one quite knows what the young animals eat, how many there are, or how much of the bay they use—a few mysteries that conservationists hope to solve with additional research.
Due to overfishing, the sand tiger shark species has declined in recent years. Currently, it's listed as a “Species of Concern” by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. And since female sand tiger sharks only have up to two babies a year, it’s difficult for the population to bounce back naturally. (Bizarre fact: The females carry hundreds of eggs in their two uteri, which are the product of unions with several different fathers. The largest embryo consumes most of its siblings in a war for survival until there's only one left in each uterus. Scientists chalk the gory phenomenon up to a competitive paternity struggle.) Meanwhile, while it's now illegal to fish for sand tiger sharks, the Great South Bay is not protected water, and is filled with boats, fishermen, and dredgers. By raising awareness of the sharks' existence, conservationists hope to protect them from man-made hazards—an action that could help promote sand tiger shark recovery all along the East Coast.
Want to see the sharks yourself? Check out the video above, which shows scientists tagging them in the wild. And no need to steer clear of the water, beachgoers: While sand tigers may look scary with their sharp, bared teeth and lengths of up to 10 feet, they eat mostly fish and won’t attack unless they’re provoked.