HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. (WLOS) — An aquarium and shark lab in Hendersonville is expecting a miracle birth any day -- with some exciting new additions.
The Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO in downtown Hendersonville has an expectant stingray named Charlotte.
But this pregnancy isn't just any normal pregnancy -- and because of that, staff thought the swelling they started to see in Charlotte in September might be cancer.
Why? Because there was no possible way for her to have become pregnant -- or so they thought -- as there were no male sting rays in the tank.
However, there are still two ways Charlotte could have gotten pregnant -- and staff won't know which way until the pups are born.
One is a very rare process called parthenogenesis, in which the eggs develop on their own without fertilization and create a clone of the mother.
Team ECCO has experience with parthenogenesis, as the shark lab's female bamboo shark has undergone the process 14 times. However, it's much more common in sharks than stingrays.
“It’s a once in a bluest of blue moons experience," Ramer said of parthenogenesis with a stingray.
"We have been doing ultrasound on our ray, Charlotte, since September, when she began to 'swell.' We documented multiple 'growths' internally and initially thought she had a cancer," Ramer said via email on Feb. 1. "I reached out to Dr. Rob Jones, the aquarium vet, and he identified the growths as eggs. We have no male ray. He said there have been few cases of parthenogenesis in rays."
The second possible explanation for Charlotte's pregnancy is more in the "Jurassic Park" arena, according to the aquarium's founder: Charlotte could have mated with one of the young sharks that was added to the tank in July.
"We're either going to have partho babies," Brenda Ramer, founder and executive director of Team ECCO, Inc. told News 13 on Thursday, Feb. 8, "or we're going to have some kind of a potential mixed breed, and we're waiting for Jeff Goldblum to show up because we are Jurassic Park right now!"
"In mid-July 2023, we moved two 1-year-old white spot bamboo males (sharks) into that tank. There was nothing we could find definitively about their maturation rate, so we did not think there would be an issue," Ramer said. "We started to notice bite marks on Charlotte, but saw other fish nipping at her, so we moved fish, but the biting continued."
Brenda said bite marks are an indicator of mating in sharks, as sharks bite during the mating process -- and Charlotte had several bites on her fin edges.
“People have written and said, 'Well they can hold male sperm for years,' and I’m like, 'She’s never been around a male until we put those two little boys in here,'” Ramer said, speaking of the aquarium's two sharks named "Larry" and "Moe."
Ramer said Charlotte is carrying up to four pups and could deliver at any time. DNA testing will likely be conducted on the pups after birth to determine whether they are a mixed breed or are, indeed, clones of their mother. Ramer said they anticipated Charlotte delivering around Friday, Feb. 9, which marks the noon moon. She said all updates will be posted to Team ECCO's website and Facebook page HERE.
The typical gestation period in a stingray is 3-4 months.
By Sunday, Feb. 11, when News 13 made a second trip to the aquarium and shark lab to speak with Ramer and the team, Charlotte was still pregnant.
THE AQUARIUM HAS BEEN CLOSED FOR RENOVATIONS – BUT REOPENS ITS DOORS THURSDAY.
The aquarium, which has been closed for renovations, reopens its doors to the public Thursday, Feb. 15.
“We’re kind of expecting a deluge, which is great and that’s fine," Ramer said with a smile. "We want people to come and see her (Charlotte) and talk to us about her.”
Ramer said she is working to set up a live stream of the tank so as many people as possible can see the pups when they are born.
If the pups are born alive, Ramer said, she hopes to keep the family together, though they will have to get a tank almost double the size of Charlotte's current home to accommodate them all.
The Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO in Hendersonville, North Carolina, is the only ocean education lab and hands-on marine study center in the WNC mountains and the Upstate of South Carolina.
The team teaches ocean-based outreach (6,500 participants in 2023), and house the first inland aquarium in North Carolina.
In 2023, the aquarium and lab saw more than 11,000 visitors.
The team has experience shark tagging with Beneath the Waves and it submitted the curriculum outline for the first Kids Camp on Exuma in 2022.