Zebra Shark Facts

Zebra Shark Profile

If you bought an authentic zebra-fur rug and it arrived covered in spots, well, you’d probably deserve a lot worse, but you’d be rightfully disappointed. 

A much cheaper and more ethical – but somewhat analogous – experience can be had when Googling “Zebra Shark” which should return a bunch of large (carpet) sharks covered in circles, rather than stripes. So, what’s that all about?

The zebra shark is a species of nocturnal carpet shark and the only member of the family Stegostomatidae. It inhabits coral reefs and sandy flats in tropical Info-Pacific waters.

Zebra Shark Facts

Zebra Shark Facts Overview

Habitat: Shallow, tropical marine; reef
Location: Indo-Pacific coastlines
Lifespan: Possibly up to 30 years
Size: 2.5 m (8.2 ft) long
Weight: Around 30kg (65 lb)
Colour: Browns and greys, chaning from stripes in juveniles to spots in adult
Diet: Crustaceans, molluscs, sea snakes
Predators: Larger sharks, humans
Top Speed: Slow
No. of Species: 1
Conservation Status: Endangered (IUCN)

Zebra sharks are sometimes confounding carpet sharks, with a penchant for crustaceans.

They sit in the reef using both camouflage, and likely mimicry, to avoid predation until they’re big enough and mean enough to look after themselves. Then they may even hunt the most venomous animals in the ocean. 

Zebra sharks are often solitary animals, but have been seen in aggregations of up to 50 individuals.

Sadly, these relatively small sharks are killed unsustainably by the fishing industry and now they’re struggling to survive. 

Interesting Zebra Shark Facts

1. They’re carpet sharks

The Orectolobiformes are an order of sharks commonly known as carpet sharks. As the name suggests, these animals have elaborate markings all over them, the kind that has historically inspired humans to skin an animal and walk all over its fur in the living room. 

Carpet shark skin doesn’t make very comfortable carpets – thought it would make excellent grip tape on a skateboard – but the name refers to these patterns, and the order contains a group of sharks originating as far back as the early Jurassic. 

One iconic member of this order is the largest fish in the world: the whale shark. Zebra sharks aren’t remotely this large, but do come with a similarly striking patterned appearance. One that has led to some confusion around its name. 

Zebra Shark

2. They’re stripy for a bit

These little carpets are named after the second-most recognisable stripy animal. Yet, when you look at one, chances are it will be covered in spots. That’s because they spend a lot longer spotty than they do stripy, but they do begin life with some beautiful striped colouration. 

Juvenile zebra sharks – ones that are less than a meter long – look entirely different than their adult counterparts. Light, vertical stripes of dapple on a brown background, giving rise to their common name. 

But as they age, their morphology and colouration change quite a bit. Ridges form along the length of the body and the stripes morph into spots. 

These two morphs are so distinct that for a long time, people thought they were two separate species. Adults are sometimes called leopard sharks, for obvious reasons, but this gets a bit confusing since there are other spotted animals with the same name. 

3. Sometimes they’re white

On rare occasions, they refuse to follow either convention and pop out a white colour morph. Albeno zebra sharks are exceptionally rare, with really only one truly confirmed example having been found alive. 

This was a young adult female, at around two meters long, showing that the strange mutation hadn’t led to it being killed as a juvenile – something which is very common for albinos, on account of their lack of camouflage. 1

4. They hunt at night

Camouflage is important for a shallows animal because of all the light. And zebra sharks make good use of it. They’ll sit like carpets on the ocean floor all day, relying on their mottled colouration to keep them from being seen. 

Then, at night, they hunt. They mostly eat crustaceans and have rounded, crushing mouthparts to handle them. But they’ll also eat molluscs and small fish if they come across any willing victims. 

But one suggested prey item is particularly surprising. 2

Zebra shark in reef

5. They may eat sea snakes

Sea snakes are the humblest animals in the ocean. They are often one of the most venomous animals anywhere in the world, on land or in the ocean, yet they’re so docile most can be handled with ease. 

Their venom is specialised for their prey, and they aren’t about to waste it by getting into a fight. Still, everyone in the ocean knows what they’re packing, and there’s some suggestion that the colour of a juvenile zebra shark is a nod to this. 

Mimicking sea snake patterns certainly works as a deterrent to a would-be predator, but the relationship between zebra sharks and the most toxic animal in the ocean may not stop there. It’s often said that zebra sharks will prey on sea snakes themselves. 

This “fact” is hard to verify for this specific species, but it has been witnessed in the big boys like the tiger and great white, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility. 3

6. Zebra sharks are oviparous

This means they lay egg capsules externally, rather than give live birth. They have been documented laying as many as 46 eggs over a 112-day period, which hatch 4-6 months later.

Zebra sharks go on to live for 25-30 years in the wild.

7. They have virgin births 

On more than one occasion, these sharks have been witnessed reproducing without the aid of a sperm donor. Unfertilised eggs developed into clones inside the mother, both in one that has mated in the past, or one that has never mated at all. 

This does happen sometimes in vertebrates, and around 80 species are confirmed to be able to do it, but it’s certainly rare to find it in sharks. 4

8. They’re migratory

For such a slow and docile shark, it might be surprising that they cover a lot of ground, but zebra sharks have been tracked undertaking long seasonal migrations of up to 1000 km each year. Some exceptional data even shows them covering twice that in half the time.

These migrations often take them into regions with higher fishing pressure, which is their major threat as a species. 5

9. Like many shark species, they are in trouble 

Inshore fisheries have seen to it that this species is now endangered. Declines are being observed all over their range, and trawling is one of the main culprits. Many juvenile sharks are killed this way. 

They’re not as threatened in Australia, but they do come up as bycatch, and the reducing numbers in this context isn’t a good sign. Their migratory paths may take them away from the relative safety of Australian waters into the intensive fishing regions of Indonesia and surrounding waters, and often they will never return. 

10. Don’t try to ride them

While these sharks are docile and easily approached by divers, there are unconfirmed reports of a zebra shark quite rightfully biting someone who tried to ride it. 

Aside from this entirely provoked attack, there doesn’t seem to be any record of them showing aggression towards humans at all. 

Zebra Shark Fact-File Summary

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chondrichthyes 
Order: Orectolobiformes
Family: Stegostomatidae
Genus: Stegostoma
Species: Stegostoma Tigrinum

Fact Sources & References

  1. Albino Zebras and Leopards Changing their Spots”, Biology of Sharks and Rays.
  2. Christine L (2012), “First record of potential Batesian mimicry in an elasmobranch: Juvenile zebra sharks mimic banded sea snakes?”, The University of Queensland.
  3. Sophie SharkSpeak Maycock, “A Leopard that Changes its Spots”, Shark Speaks.
  4. Philip Hampsheir (2012), “Zebra shark at centre of ‘virgin birth’ mystery”, BBC News.
  5. Indo-Pacific Leopard Shark”, IUCN Red List.