Long-term use of a shark breeding ground: Three decades of mating site fidelity in the nurse shark, Ginglymostoma cirratum

PLoS One. 2022 Oct 17;17(10):e0275323. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0275323. eCollection 2022.


Understanding shark mating dynamics and mating site use may be vital to species management. The Dry Tortugas courtship and mating ground (DTCMG) has been known as a mating site for nurse sharks, Ginglymostoma cirratum, since 1895. In a 30-yr (1992-2021) study we have documented long-term site fidelity to this area with data from 137 adult sharks (89 female, 48 male) tagged with PIT, fin, and acoustic tags. Of 118 sharks tagged from 1993 to 2014, at least 80 (68%) returned to the DTCMG in subsequent years during the June-July mating season. Known individuals returned in up to 16 different mating seasons and over periods of up 28 years, indicating that life span extends well into the forties for this species. Of all returning sharks, 59% (N = 47) have been monitored for over 10 years and 13% (N = 10) have been monitored for over 20 years. Males arrived annually in May and June and departed in July, whereas females arrived biennially or triennially in June, with a secondary peak in site use in September and August, likely associated with thermoregulation during gestation. During the mating season, males made more frequent visits of shorter duration (median = 34 visits for 1 h per visit) to the DTCMG, whereas females made fewer visits but remained on site for longer periods (median = 12.5 visits for 4.4 h per visit). Females typically mated biennially but showed a triennial cycle in 32% of cases, with many females switching cycles at least once. This pattern would reduce the potential reproductive lifetime output of a female by 11% compared to what would be projected from a strict biennial cycle. The long-term mating site fidelity of this shark population reveals the importance of identifying and protecting mating sites for this and other elasmobranch species.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Female
  • Male
  • Reproduction
  • Sharks* / physiology

Grant support

A Waitt Foundation National Geographic Society (NGS) grant to NMW, an NSF EAGER grant (IOS#1010567) to NMW, and a NGS CRE grant (#8769-10) to NMW supported parts of this work. We also acknowledge support from Albion College, Mote Marine Laboratory, Die Hai Stiftung, The Alliance for South Florida’s National Parks, the National Park Service, and the New England Aquarium. No funders had any role in the study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript