There are many questions left unanswered about great white shark reproduction, including how, where and under what circumstances young individuals hatch and develop. While the important role of great white sharks as part of the food chain and the ocean’s ecosystem is better known than ever, scientists have only gathered some vague information on their mating and reproduction process mainly because of their limited ability to observe the sharks in their natural habitats.
One of the most important detail that scientists have uncovered about great white reproduction is that great whites are ovoviviparous. This means the shark typically grows inside an egg, which hatches while it is still inside the mother. In the womb unborn great whites feed on unfertilized eggs – through a process known as oophagy – until the time they are developed enough to exit. While they aren’t known to feast on fertilized eggs, as is the case with a few other species of shark, great white embryos have also been observed to ingest their own teeth once they fall out, for added calcium.
Although there are still many unknowns about great white shark reproduction, scientists have been able to dissect and study several pregnant female specimens. Speculation about gestation periods have led researchers to believe these are between 12 and 18 months. Litters can range between 10 and up to 17 pups, and most of the pups are an average of 1.5 meters in length. The long gestation period allows females to give birth only once every couple of years, due to the additional need to rest and recover after mating and giving birth. Combined with the slow growth cycle of juvenile great white sharks, this fact has caused significant concern among conservationists, some believing that great whites are in danger as a species.
Many unknowns and uncertainties still exist about the great whites’ reproductive cycles. One of them is the actual birth process, which has never been witnessed. Because the process of tracking great whites can be difficult, if not impossible in some instances, marine biologists still don’t know the exact number of specimens in existence, nor whether the number of litters and juvenile sharks estimated to appear each year is anywhere near accurate. Due to these unknowns, many scientists claim that great whites should receive protected status until further information about great white shark reproduction can be acquired.