Animals

Meet the Species: Leopard Sharks

All you ever wanted to know about the slender shark with the big-cat name.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock/divejunkie

Meet the leopard shark.

It's an impressive looking fish with distinctive markings reminiscent of the big cat for which it's named.

The leopard shark's broad, slender snout fronts a similarly sleek frame that's typically only about 4 to 6 feet long, though some can grow up to 7 feet long.

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Compared to other sharks that range widely throughout Earth's oceans, leopard sharks have a relatively narrow slice of water they call home – from Oregon down to the Gulf of Mexico in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

They like sandy or muddy estuaries and bays and typically spend their time in shallow waters only about 20 feet deep, though they've been documented patrolling depths of up to 300 feet (so don't accuse them of being afraid of depths).

The sea floor is a leopard shark's dinner table. They're opportunistic feeders that eat octopus, little bony fishes, other fish's eggs, worms, and crustaceans, to name a few things they enjoy.

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We have nothing to fear from this splotchy, spotted shark. It doesn't attack, maim or otherwise harm humans. It's us, instead, who've bothered it. Leopard sharks have been plucked out of the sea by people for food and for sale in the aquarium trade. Their only harm to humans is indirect: They can accumulate mercury in their systems, and it's been considered unsafe for people to eat their meat with great frequency.

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Female leopard sharks can live at least 20 years, the males 24. When it's time for breeding season, the sharks will head into shallower waters from offshore in schools. Twelve months of gestation later, the female will give birth to live young -- anywhere from about 7 to several dozen pups of about 7 inches long.

The pups are fully independent at birth, though they tend to play it safe and keep to shallow waters until they grow up a bit and head for the deep.

And, in a fun twist, sharks, like some other animals on our planet, can give birth without a male partner. In fact, a leopard shark in Australia just did that very thing -- experiencing three "virgin births" in a Queensland aquarium.