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Endangered hammerhead sharks die at Miami Frost Science Museum

When you think of a deadly shark season, you probably see blood in the water, severed limbs and the ominous two-note tuba from Jaws. But over the course of three months at the Frost Science Museum last year, three shark deaths were seen, the first shark mortality recorded at the museum since opening in 2016.

Records obtained by New Times from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) shows that between September and December 2021, two young hammerheads and an adult silk shark belonging to Frost Science died in captivity for various reasons. Both species are globally endangered or threatened by overfishing and trade in shark fins, which kill millions of sharks a year. The death of the young hammerheads highlights a disease affecting sharks that experts do not know much about.

On August 4, Frost Science received a shipment of three young hammerheads, a critically endangered species, from a licensed partner, according to Andy Dehart, vice president of Animal Husbandry & Marine Conservation at Frost Science. Dehart, a shark enthusiast since childhood, says the museum acquired the endangered sharks to educate children and adults about the species to help preserve the effort.

“We want to create awareness of what’s going on with the shark fin trade. These hammerheads are good ambassadors for their species. We want people to learn more about them and fall in love with sharks,” says Dehart New Times.

But something was wrong when the young hammerheads arrived.

One of the sharks showed immediate signs of fusarium, a fungus that lives in underwater environments and commonly infects sharks and especially hammerheads. The fungus can cause chronic dermatitis and inflammation of the blood vessels and has an 88 percent mortality rate among sharks at the Adventure Aquarium in New Jersey, according to a 2017 research paper by veterinarian Michael Hyatt. Little is known about the infection or how to properly treat it.

A frayed hammerhead shark

Photo by Kris-Mikael Krister via Flickr

“We had put them in quarantine and a breeding facility as part of our protocols with new animals, and on arrival they had warning signs of fusarium. Fungal infections are one of the most difficult pathways to treat,” explains Dehart.

Frost Science began contacting other aquariums throughout the United States and as far away as Japan for advice on how to treat the infection.

But their efforts failed: The first hammerhead died on September 5th. The infection also spread to the other two quarantined hammerheads, one of whom died on December 14th.

The Silky Shark, an endangered species, had been with Frost Science since the museum opened in 2016. It died during the same three months, although it was not in the same tank, and museum staff have not determined what killed it.

“It had trouble navigating and did not swim well. We tried antibiotics and steroids and worked with that animal for three hours in a row to revive it before we called to kill the animal,” says Dehart.

Autopsy data for the silk shark were sent to pathologists and laboratories. Dehart says Frost Science is still waiting to hear back.

The third hammerhead Frost Science acquired remains in medical quarantine and shows signs of the Fusarium infection. Biologists at the museum treat it with antifungal drugs and steroid injections.

Dehart says he is unsure whether fusariums will become more common among sharks in the wild, but says animals acquired in recent years are arriving with a number of problems due to marine pollution and climate change, including parasites and a number of infections. Fusarium is also known to be common in bonnethead sharks, a type of hammerhead that lives in Biscayne Bay, Dehart adds.

“We are saddened by this loss,” he says. “We have worked very hard. We feel confident that when you can put children, adults, older people face to face with animals, it can be magical.”


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