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Shark embryos grow teeth and ‘hunt’ in the womb. What they eat is a little disgusting

At only 33 cm, this shark pup has large teeth at such an early stage so it can eat eggs in its mother’s womb, say researchers at Sulikowski Shark and Fish Research Lab, which provided this photo.
At only 33 cm, this shark pup has large teeth at such an early stage so it can eat eggs in its mother’s womb, say researchers at Sulikowski Shark and Fish Research Lab, which provided this photo. Sulikowski Shark and Fish Research Lab

Great white, mako and porbeagle sharks “learn to hunt” in the womb and what they eat is both strange and perhaps a little disgusting, according to new research.

Their embryos develop teeth at an early stage -- and use them to chomp their mother’s unfertilized eggs.

That observation was made this month by researchers at the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Research Lab, which posted the details Wednesday on Facebook. The lab is part of the University of New England in Biddeford, Maine.

“These pups actually learn to ‘hunt’ before birth!” said the post by James Sulikowski, a professor at the university’s Marine Science Department.

“But that doesn’t mean they eat their siblings in the womb. Instead...embryos eat unfertilized eggs that are continually deposited into the uterus by the mother....The fact that they develop these rotating rows of teeth to help them consume this food source is unique and in a sense is like them acting like a predator in the womb.”

The research was done in collaboration with Lisa Natanson of the NOAA Apex Predators Program, and involved legally captured specimens, he said.

Photos posted by the lab showed a 12-week-old porbeagle shark embryo had already developed teeth.

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“It was ready (to feed). They’re like a mini-predator,” Sulikowski said of the embryo. “That this species began to utilize the teeth in development to feed is the key discovery here. It’s really cool.”

A photo of the adult shark specimen’s ovary filled with countless unfertilized yellow eggs was also posted.

Sulikowski told The Charlotte Observer the research is helping scientists unravel a multitude of mysteries involving endangered sharks.

“We still know very little about sharks, their biology and the tracking of their movements,” Sulikowski said. “Where do pregnant sharks go and why do they go there? Where do they give birth and when do they go there?”

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This video from late February 2018 documents the discovery of a humpback whale carcass nearly 30 miles off Cumberland Island, and how sharks -- including some large great whites -- quickly scavenged the 28-foot-long whale until little was left.

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