A female leopard shark called Leonie has made history by learning to reproduce asexually after losing her mating partner.
Leonie has had several pups with a mate before, but the pair were separated into different tanks in their Australian aquarium more than three years ago.
Yet in April last year, despite having had no access to a mate for three mating seasons, Leonie astonished researchers by hatching three eggs.
“We thought she could be storing sperm but when we tested the pups and the possible parent sharks using DNA fingerprinting, we found they only had cells from Leonie,” said Dr Christine Dudgeon, a researcher at Queensland University.
While sharks are known to have reproduced asexually, it’s the first time scientists have witnessed the phenomenon in a shark with a mating history.
The discovery has raised hopes that leopard sharks, which are now endangered, could fight back.
“This has big implications for conservation and shows us how flexible the shark’s reproductive system really is,” Dr Dudgeon said.
“What we want to know now is could this occur in the wild and, if so, how often does it? One reason why we haven’t seen it before could be because we haven’t been looking for it.”
The researchers are now keen to follow the pups, to see if they are able to reproduce sexually.
“You lose genetic diversity with generations of asexual reproduction, so we’ll be seeing if these offspring can mate sexually themselves,” Dr Dudgeon said.