Aquarium of the Pacific - Online Learning Center - Species Print Sheet
Conservation Status: Least concern
Climate Change: Vulnerable
(Triakis semifasciata)Cartilaginous Fishes • Sharks
Leopard sharks get their common name from the black saddle-like stripes and large spots over their back. The scientific name, Triakis semifasciata, also describes the sharks. Triakisis Greek for “three-pointed,” the shape of the sharks’ three-pointed teeth, and semifasciata means half-banded, describing the saddle markings on the skin of this species. These medium-sized sharks are commonly found in California nearshore waters.
At the Aquarium
Some of our leopard sharks are now over 16 years old having inhabited the Aquarium’s Blue Cavern since June 1998 when the Aquarium opened.
Northeast Pacific Ocean from Coos Bay, Oregon to Mazatlán, Baja California including the Gulf of California
These sharks prefer the sand or mud bottoms of bays and estuaries at depths subtidal to about 6 m (20 ft). They have been observed as deep as 91 m (300 ft).
Leopard sharks have an elongated body, with a relatively broad short snout. A prominent rounded dorsal fin originates over the inner margins of the pectoral fins. The second dorsal fin is pointed and about three-quarters the size of the first dorsal fin. The pectoral fins are somewhat broad and triangular. The upper lobe of the caudal fin (tail) is notched and elongated. Their teeth are small with three sharp points. Their skin is usually beige or silvery, with a pattern of dark brown spots and saddles along their back. Ventral (under) side is lighter.
Average: 1.2-1.5 m (3.8 to 4.9 ft) Rare: to 1.8 m (5.9 ft),
Opportunistic hunters, their diet consists of food found on the ocean floor. They prey on crustaceans, octopus, small bony fishes, innkeeper worms, and fish eggs. They may shovel their snout into the sand or mud to dig out prey, using suction to reach the buried food item. Prey is often swallowed whole. How they remove the shells of ingested whole clams is not known but it is believed they may extract the contents by grabbing the clam siphon and yanking quickly.
Female leopard become mature at ten to fifteen years of age and males at seven to thirteen years. During the annual breeding season, schools of these sharks move from deeper water into nearshore shallower water. Fertilization is internal. The type of reproduction is called aplacental viviparity or ovoviviparity. The fertilized eggs hatch inside the female’s body and pups are born live. After a ten to twelve-month gestation, seven to thirty-six pups about 17.8 cm (7 in) in total length are born. They are independent at birth. But usually stay in shallow bays and estuaries before venturing out into deeper ocean waters
Female leopard sharks have been observed giving birth in a variety of habitats along the California coastline from eel grass to sand bars and the open ocean.
Leopard sharks congregate by size and sex in large nomadic schools. The schools appear and disappear within a few hours. Schools follow the tide as they feed, moving closer to shore as the tide comes in and then swimming away before it recedes. In addition to feeding, the movement may be influenced by temperature, salinity and amount of dissolved oxygen. Large schools have even been observed in the surf zone. They are also known to form schools with California round rays and with sevengill sharks, and smoothhound sharks. The latter are close relatives.
Leopard sharks are seasonally abundant in central and northern California bays and estuaries but leave for the open coast in the winter months. In Southern California, leopard sharks occur year-round along the open coast, particularly among kelp forests, rocky reefs, and sandy beach areas.
The red blood cells of leopard shark are smaller than those of the closely related smoothound sharks. It is believed that this may allow the leopard shark to absorb more oxygen from the water, an advantage in estuaries and other shallow environments that have lower oxygen levels.
The spots and saddles that give them their common name camouflage these sharks as they swim along the ocean floor.
Males: to at least 24 years of age Females: to at least 20 years.
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife closely manages the leopard shark fishery within state waters. Use of gill nets in waters typically inhabited by these sharks is prohibited. Recreational fishery for leopard sharks is open year-round and coast-wide to diverse and shore-based anglers. The fishery is open to boat-based anglers year-round in designated areas only. Outside these areas, it is open seasonally between January and June. Leopard sharks may only be taken or possessed in waters less than 54.5 m (180 ft) deep. The daily bag and possession limit is three fish with a minimum size limit of 91 cm (36 in).
In federal waters, leopard sharks are one of three shark species under the management authority of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service through the Pacific Coast Groundfish Fishery Management Plan (Groundfish FMP).
Currently listed internationally as Least Concern, overfishing, loss of shallow water nurseries, and pollution of these areas from runoff are threats to these sharks. They have been found to contain high levels of mercury attributed to either water quality or ingestion of food items containing mercury.
Since tidal flow was restored to the Bolsa Chica Marine reserve, a marine protected area, the population of leopard sharks has increased markedly. Extensive research of the physiological and behavioral biology of this population has been done by the California State University Long Beach’s Shark Lab. The feeding habits of the Aquarium’s leopard sharks that inhabit the Blue Cavern have been studied by the lab.
In 2007 a ring of smugglers taking young leopard sharks out of San Francisco Bay and selling them alive to the pet fish store trade and private buyers in the United States and abroad was apprehended and fined near a million dollars. The fine has been used for the restoration of San Francisco Bay habitats.