By Ally Kerley
The next time you’re snorkeling or scuba diving in or around the kelp forests off our local coast, make sure you look down– you may just spot a small school of Leopard Sharks! These small bottom feeding predators are usually around four to seven feet in length when fully mature, and the distinctiveness of their dark oval spots against the silvery-bronze of their skin makes them easily identifiable.
Like other sharks, Leopard Sharks are predators; however they won’t react violently in the presence of humans if given proper distance and respect. Leopard sharks mainly hunt for their preferred meals of small fish, clams, crabs, and fat innkeeper worms on the bottom of the sea floor. These sleek swimmers are mainly bottom feeders, and prefer shallow waters of less than 90 feet deep. Surprisingly though, they have been known to hunt in waters as deep as 300 feet!
Leopard sharks are both fast and clever; when they can’t catch their prey before it digs into the sand, the Leopard Shark will dig its nose into the sand and twist its body over, catapulting the sand and whatever was hiding in it off the sea floor. As opposed to some of the other breeds of sharks that have their mouths closer to the tip of their missile-shaped faces, leopard sharks have their mouths on the underside of their shovel-shaped head, making for easy access to bottom-dwelling prey.
Leopard Sharks are found along the coast of Oregon all the way down to Mazatlan, Mexico, and in the Gulf of California. The San Francisco Bay is the proud home to a decent-sized population of leopard sharks, who have made a comeback in recent years. Leopard sharks are more vulnerable to over-fishing than some other water-dwelling species due to their long life-span. These sharks don’t reach maturity and begin reproducing until they are a decade (10 years) old! They also have fewer pups (baby sharks) than other marine species– only about a couple dozen. This may seem like a lot of children compared to mammals, but other marine species may lay several thousand eggs during one mating season! With fewer offspring produced every year and a ten-year span before those offspring can reproduce, the leopard shark is highly susceptible to overfishing, and takes longer to recover once overfished. Thankfully, leopard sharks have made a successful recovery from the overfishing they experienced in the late 1980’s and 90’s, and currently hold the “Least Concern” status in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.