Alabama – Ecologists are looking into the remains of a pregnant 14-foot-long great hammerhead shark that was discovered on an Alabama beach on April 20.
The following day, ecologists from the Mississippi State University Coastal Research and Extension Center (MSU) journeyed to Orange Beach in Alabama to study the deceased great hammerhead shark and its 40 pups, all of which were already dead when they were found on the shore, according to a Facebook post by MSU Marine Fisheries Ecology.
Researchers inspected the shark’s primary organs, including its heart, stomach, and kidneys, and found no evidence of trauma. MSU also reported the absence of any abnormal lesions or unusual parasites.
While it is “impossible” to definitively determine the cause of death, scientists believe the shark succumbed to fishing mortality—likely due to accidental capture. They observed that great hammerheads are more susceptible to the physiological effects of capture stress than other shark species, and pregnancy exacerbates this stress.
Orange Beach visitors were in for a surprise when a pregnant 14-foot great hammerhead shark washed ashore in Alabama. https://t.co/hQF5dyTzDg
— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) April 26, 2023
Sampling and Analysis for Further Research
After collecting samples, the MSU researchers transported them to the university lab for additional examination. Among the samples were several vertebrae from the adult shark, which can help determine the shark’s age and birth location, as well as provide insight into population structure and connectivity.
Scientists also removed muscle tissue from the mother shark to study its feeding habits, the stomach, and several fin clips for a current study analyzing genetic population structure and the number of breeding individuals in the population.
Fin clips were also taken from each pup to assess relatedness among siblings, as many shark broods are sired by multiple male sharks—a phenomenon known as “multiple paternity,” according to MSU. Researchers also noted that the number and size of the pups offer valuable information about brood size and birth timing.
Educational Use and Importance of Conservation
MSU intends to preserve the pups and donate them to classrooms for educational purposes. The university expressed gratitude to the City of Orange Beach Coastal Resources for involving the scientific community and allowing them to examine these unique specimens. The samples collected will help enhance understanding of great hammerheads in the northern Gulf of Mexico, which is essential for their ongoing conservation.
MSU emphasized that great hammerheads should not be feared, as they are not aggressive sharks and have never been involved in any fatal attack. Great hammerheads found off the coast of Alabama primarily patrol coastal waters to hunt stingrays, according to MSU.