Social media darling Lydia the Shark is a great white with followers around the world who track her every move via non-profit Ocearch’s website, Facebook page, and app. The 2,000 lb., 14 and a half foot long mature shark can clock several hundred miles in a 48 hour period. Since Dr. Gregory Skomal, a Senior Marine Fisheries Scientist at MA Marine Fisheries and adjunct instructor at the University of Massachusetts School for Marine Science and Technology, and his team tagged Lydia in March 2013, she’s traveled more than 27,000 miles in the northern Atlantic Ocean.
She also may or may not be drawing pictures of herself with her tracks.
And as is the burden held by her fellow celebrities, Lydia’s possible pregnancy has caused a bit of a frenzy—you know, in certain circles.
While the fear-inducing idea of a great white giving birth to up-to-a-dozen babies at your local beach is enough to generate a fewheadlines, the possibility that Lydia got pregnant without the assistance of a male shark is also noteworthy.
Asexual shark reproduction (a.k.a. “virgin birth’’) has been studied and documented in other breeds—including a blacktip who got pregnant after eight years of isolation from males at a Virginia aquarium—but Skomal remained skeptical when asked about Lydia’s rumored pregnancy.
“We don’t know for sure [if she’s pregnant],’’ Skomal told Boston.com. “And how would you know that? All we can do is look at her condition when we tagged her, and that was over a year and a half ago. Anything could have happened in a year and a half.’’
While Lydia was not pregnant when Skomal and his team tagged Lydia, he said she may have been stashing sperm for the future.
You read that right.
’’Female [sharks] can have sex and then fertilize their eggs at a later date,’’ he explained. “She may have not been pregnant when we tagged her, but she may have been storing sperm. That’s speculation, but it does complicate the study of the reproduction cycle.’’
However, Skomal notes this behavior isn’t a conscious decision—or, as I had hoped, a feminist shark statement—but rather driven by physiology, a female shark’s body gauging when she is most receptive to reproduction and storing the sperm for a rainy day, so to speak.
Some publications speculated baby sharks were on the way based on Lydia’s trip to the warmer “birthing’’ waters of the Mediterranean. Tagging expedition leader Chris Fischer told the BBC in March that she may be pregnant based on her patterns.
“I would guess that Lydia is pregnant, and that she has been out in the open ocean gestating her babies, and that this spring she will lead us to where those baby white sharks are born – the nursery,’’ Fischer said.
Regardless of her pregnancy status, Skomal said Lydia’s tracking, and her online popularity, has given enormous depth to the research and study of her kind. Skomal and his team have tagged about 56 sharks, including Lydia, and hope to find a link between their oceanic movements and the reproductive cycle.
Lydia, who broke a record earlier this year for swimming the furthest known distance of any tracked great white, appears to be moving both swiftly and intentionally. “She’s not only moved up to northern latitudes to Nova Scotia in the winter, which is unusual, she’s also made incredibly long distance movements to central parts of Atlantic,’’ Skomal said. “None of our white sharks do that. She’s had some milestone events in her year.’’
Sadly, Lydia’s battery-driven tracking device doesn’t have the persistence its owner has displayed. Skomal estimates it’ll be “at least another year’’ before it kicks the bucket. “But you’re putting electricity in sea water, so anything could happen,’’ he reasoned.
For now, Lydia’s followers can turn to Ocearch for updates on her journey, whether you’re a fan or living in fear — though Skomal thinks the stigma against sharks is on the up-and-up.
“There’s an innate fear of sharks, but we’ve seen more people that are fascinated toward them,’’ he said. “Attitudes are changing.’’