A number of captive sandtiger sharks (Carcharias taurus) in public aquaria have developed spinal deformities over the past decade, ranging in severity from mild curvature to spinal fracture and severe subluxation. To determine the frequency and etiologic basis of this disease, U.S. public aquaria participated in a two-stage epidemiologic study of resident sharks: 1) a history and husbandry survey and 2) hematology, clinical chemistry, and radiography conducted during health exams. Eighteen aquaria submitted data, samples, or both from 73 specimens, including 19 affected sharks (26%). Sharks caught off the Rhode Island coast or by pound net were smaller at capture and demonstrated a higher prevalence of deformity than did larger sharks caught from other areas via hook and line. Relative to healthy sharks, affected sharks were deficient in zinc, potassium, and vitamins C and E. Capture and transport results lead to two likely etiologic hypotheses: 1) that the pound-net capture process induces spinal trauma that becomes exacerbated over time in aquarium environments or 2) that small (and presumably young) sharks caught by pound net are exposed to disease-promoting conditions (including diet or habitat deficiencies) in aquaria during the critical growth phase of their life history. The last hypothesis is further supported by nutrient deficiencies among affected sharks documented in this study; potassium, zinc, and vitamin C play critical roles in proper cartilage-collagen development and maintenance. These correlative findings indicate that public aquaria give careful consideration to choice of collection methods and size at capture and supplement diets to provide nutrients required for proper development and maintenance of cartilaginous tissue.
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