This Is How a Female Stingray With No Mate Became Mysteriously Pregnant

By: Alyssa Miller | Published: Feb 22, 2024

TikTok is raving about the latest mystery surrounding a female stingray in a North Carolina aquarium. A rust-colored round stingray named Charlotte, who lives in captivity with several sharks, is pregnant.

The phenomenon, dubbed the “Virgin Mary of Stingrays,” has baffled aquarium staff and the internet since she hasn’t encountered a male mate in at least eight years. How did this happen?

The Discovery of Charlotte’s Eggs

Aquarium workers believe Charlotte to be between 12 and 16 years old and have discovered mysterious growths swelling on her body. Brenda Ramer, the executive director of the Aquarium and Shark Lab by Team ECCO, where Charlotte lives, thought these lumps indicated cancer.

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Charlotte the Stingrays ultrasound

Source: Aquarium and Shark Lab/Twitter

However, staff ran an ultrasound on the ray, discovering a shocking revelation: Charlotte was pregnant with four eggs.

Charlotte Is Pregnant But With No Male Mate

“It’s a once in a bluest of blue moons experience,” Ramer tells ABC News 13. “I reached out to Dr. Rob Jones, the aquarium vet, and he identified the growth as eggs. We have no male rays.”

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Charlotte the Stingray swimming in her tank

Source: BlueRidgeNow/YouTube

As mentioned above, Charlotte has not had a male mate in at least eight years. It is unlikely that Charlotte’s pregnancy has been that long since a stingray pregnancy typically lasts three to four months. The longest known gestation period for marine animals belongs to Graneledone boreopacifica, which is a deep-seed octopus that has a 53-month-long pregnancy.

Mating Bites from Sharks Were Discovered in Charlotte

Many are speculating that Charlotte’s children might be interspecies since she has been sharing a tank with two male white-spotted bamboo sharks, named Larry and Moe, since July 2023 with no male stingrays.

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A brown and white spotted shark laying on top of grey stones

Source: City and Color/Flickr

Ramer noticed bite marks on Charlotte, which could be a sign of shark mating. If one of the sharks is not the father, then Charlotte reproduced asexually. No matter how the stingray pregnancy happened, it is a scientific first.

Is a Shark Behind the Stingray’s Pregnancy? 

According to the Associated Press (AP), experts have put the shark theory to rest. Kady Lyons, a research scientist at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, says that the two species’ anatomies are not compatible and neither is their DNA.

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Round Stingray on a tank's glass

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“We should set the record straight that there aren’t some shark-ray shenanigans happening here,” says Lyons to the AP.

Charlotte Made Her Own Babies

Parthenogenesis is the most likely explanation behind the stingray’s pregnancy. Translated from the Greek phrase, which translates to “virgin creation,” parthenogenesis is a rare form of asexual reproduction, according to National Geographic.

The underside of a stingray pup

Source: Wikimedia Commons

This allows females to produce an embryo without fertilization by a male mate. Instead, a smaller cell, called a “polar body,” forms at the same time as the egg, containing DNA similar to the mother’s, and merges with the fertile egg.

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How Does Parthenogenesis Happen? 

Parthenogenesis allows a mother to create offspring through asexual reproduction that looks like the mother without being an exact clone. More than 80 vertebrate species have observed this rare reproductive process.

A brown and blue spotted stingray swimming in water

Source: PickPik

“This is a very interesting phenomenon and quite cool considering it occurs across so many species of sharks and rays, but we don’t really know why this is so common across this group of animals and not others,” says Chris Lowe, director of the shark lab at California State University, Long Beach, to Forbes.

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Charlotte Is the First Stingray of Her Kind to Do This

This new phenomenon is such an exciting discovery because Charlotte’s specific species of stingray, the round stingray, has never been reported to give birth this way. It is also a more logical explanation than an interspecies romance.

Stingray Inside An Aquarium

Source: Engin Akyurt/Pexels

It is difficult to identify how often parthenogenesis happens in the wild. Researchers often discover which animals are capable of parthenogenesis through captivity.

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Why Does Parthenogenesis Happen? 

“We don’t know why [parthenogenesis] happens,” Lyons said. “Just that it’s kind of this really neat phenomenon that they seem to be able to do.”

Ray Swimming Underwater

Source: Kevin B/Pexels

“When the birth happens, we’ll get the babies moved to the tide pool. It’s like our little nursery tank,” says Kinsley Boyette, assistant director of the aquarium, to Hendersonville Times-News. “We’re just hoping for happy and healthy babies.”

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People Are Calling Charlotte’s Future Pups “Steesus” 

While parthenogenesis is a logical answer, leave it to the internet to create memes around phenomena that we don’t often see.

A brown and tan spotted round stingray laying on the sand in a body of water

Source: Ingrid V. Taylar/Flickr

As mentioned earlier, TikTok is having a field day with this news, with several people calling the “divine” offspring of Charlotte “Steesus,” short for Stingray Jesus. Jesus has been linked to rays before, strangely not for the first time.

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Stingray With Jesus on Her Back

In 2012, a woman in South Carolina took a picture of a cownose ray that washed up on the beach, claiming that the stingray had a glistening depiction of Jesus Christ on its back.

A brown stingray on the wet sand of a beach

Source: Jessica Scheldt/Instagram

After posting the image to social media, many said that the stingray’s back did depict a bearded man who looked similar to images of Jesus.

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You Can Watch Charlotte and Her Pups!

Pareidolia, the human tendency to perceive specific and meaningful images or meanings in random or ambiguous patterns, easily explains why people are so attracted to Charlotte’s story. However, what we are witnessing is a common phenomenon that rarely occurs before human eyes.

Woman with Two Girls Looking at Fish in an Aquarium

Source: Los Muertos Crew/Pexels

AP expects Charlotte to give birth within the next two weeks. Afterward, they will move the stingray and her pups to a tank with live cameras for spectators to observe the historic newborns.

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