The Leopard Shark is a member of a family of sharks commonly referred to as ground sharks or “hound sharks.” These small sharks are found in shallow waters and are not a rare sight when wading along the beaches of California. 

Leopard shark in an aquarium
The leopard shark in an aquarium


Appearance

The presence of black oval markings that line the dark-silver skin of the sharks is where it derives its common name. Leopard sharks are usually small, ranging from four to seven feet long. Females are often larger than males, a trait known as sexual dimorphism. Leopard sharks have triangle-shaped fins, with two unique dorsal fins and a long slender tail. 

Leopard shark swimming in kelp
Leopard shark swimming in kelp

Credit: Matthew Field


Diet 

The diet of Leopard sharks mainly consists of small aquatic invertebrates such as clams, crabs, fish eggs, and innkeeper worms. These sharks are opportunistic feeders, meaning they take advantage of various prey items, eating what they can find. Leopard sharks have been known to prey upon small fish or rays when presented with an opportunity or need.

Habitat 

Leopard sharks are commonly found in temperate waters, widely found in intertidal zones. These intertidal zones are usually shallow (up to 4m) and contain abundant invertebrate organisms. This species has been recorded in deeper waters, but few sightings occur at depths greater than 60 feet. Studies have shown that Leopard sharks prefer to live in muddy or sandy flats that rise with the tides. They also tend to favor rocky bottoms or areas surrounding kelp reefs. 

Leopard Shark swimming around fish and kelp
Leopard Shark swimming around fish and kelp

Credit: Jennifer Peyton from San Francisco


Reproduction

Leopard sharks are oviviviparous, meaning their eggs do not contain a yolk sac or placenta. This means eggs form inside the mother, hatch inside the mother, and are released as live young into the water. Mother sharks give birth to a group of pups ranging from six to thirty-six young. This release usually occurs after ten months to a year following the inception of the embryo.

Female leopard sharks are projected first to give birth around ten years of age. From their initial litter, they mate and reproduce every year following. Researchers believe that Leopard Sharks can take roughly a decade to reach sexual maturity. 

Threats

The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) lists the Leopard Shark as a species of “least concern.” These sharks are considered at stable population numbers, but there is a concern with several factors that may have a future impact on the species’ populations. These factors include habitat degradation, climate change, and accidentally overfishing/bycatch (the incidental catch of animals in fishing gear). 

Leopard sharks are not hunted in large numbers commercially. In fact, the IUCN states that recreational hunting constitutes a much greater take than commercial fisheries. The hunting of Leopard sharks most commonly occurs along the California coast and is mainly through recreational fishing and spearfishing. Leopard sharks do have a few natural predators, like larger shark species.

Fun Facts 

  • According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, there have been reports of Leopard sharks found at depths of 300 Ft. 
  • Leopard sharks are considered “homebodies” because they stay in the same location for most of their lives. 
  • Leopard sharks have been seen by divers swimming silently above the ocean floor, on the prowl for a form of prey. This prey is clams, who have a small siphon that they protrude above their sandy camouflage. Leopard sharks have been observed to grab the siphon with their teeth, pull the clam out of its safety, and deposit the prey into their mouth. That is if they are fast enough to catch the siphon before the clam pulls it back into safety. 
  • Leopard sharks, and all other sharks, don’t have a swim bladder like most fish. Instead, sharks have a large oil storage in their livers to counterbalance them from sinking.

FAQs on the Leopard Shark

Do leopard sharks bite humans?

No, leopard sharks are harmless to humans. It’s possible to swim alongside them within their native habitat. But, it’s essential to respect these animals and refrain from touching them.

Are leopard sharks friendly?

Yes, to humans, leopard sharks are primarily friendly and harmless. There are few to no records of leopard sharks harming human beings and no history of a leopard shark biting a human.

Are leopard sharks in Australia?

Yes, the leopard shark can be found along the western coast of Western Australia and the north and south coasts of New South Whales.

What eats a leopard shark?

Leopard sharks are preyed on by larger sharks, like the broad nose sevengill shark and the great white shark, sea lions, and larger fish.