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A Brief Investigation Into Whether Charlotte The Pregnant Ray Is Scamming Us All

A round stingray (Urolophus halleri) I photographed in shallow water at Bolsa Chica wetlands (Southern California). The clouds of sand around the eyes and and body were formed as the stingray flapped and positioned deeper in the sand, expelling water. You can see the spiracles behind the eyes.
Ingrid Taylar, CC by 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons|

A round stingray that is not Charlotte.

In February, when an aquarium in North Carolina announced their round stingray, Charlotte, had become pregnant despite not having any contact with male stingrays in eight years, people began speculating wildly as to how this virginal conception might have happened. The drama of Charlotte's pregnancy was certainly spurred by the way the aquarium announced it. Brenda Ramer, the founder and executive director of the Aquarium & Shark Lab in Hendersonville, suggested that the stingray might have "mated with one of these young male sharks," to a breathless crowd from the 21st-century pulpit also known as Facebook Live. Stingray and shark biologists quickly debunked this theory, explaining that the most likely explanation for Charlotte's conception was parthenogenesis, a form of reproduction where a female animal develops an egg into an embryo, no sperm required. But a sliver of mystery would remain until Charlotte the pregnant stingray actually gave birth, which in the aquarium predicted in February would happen "any day now."

Now it is April—in fact it is nearly May—and Charlotte has not given birth. Her first ultrasound was in September, when the staff noticed a bump, meaning she has been pregnant for about seven to eight months, which is twice as long as an expected pregnancy for her species. The aquarium has posted occasional updates on Charlotte's status to Instagram to confirm the stingray has yet to give birth, but Charlotte's many fans are getting feisty. Two weeks ago, after the aquarium posted a reel with the caption "Charlotte is continuing on her journey with Parthenogenesis! She continues to be healthy and has a great appetite!" commenters began flinging accusations not just at the aquarium, but at Charlotte herself, for catfishing us, leaving me to wonder what on earth is happening in that tank. Why haven't the pups emerged? Did the aquarium make the whole thing up, or is Charlotte the stingray faking a pregnancy, manipulating us for extra meals? What follows is my rigorous investigation of the matter.

Theory 1: The aquarium made the whole thing up!

I don't want to slander anyone, human, ray, or aquarium, but I also think it's worth remembering that it was Ramer, the aquarium director, who suggested one of the sharks in the tank could be the father of Charlotte's pups and that their babies would be "some kind of a potential mixed breed." Ramer later said it was a joke, but her suggestion spread like wildfire across the tabloids, and is probably the only reason Charlotte's story was covered so widely, even making it onto All Things Considered. How many other parthenogenetic births are considered on NPR? I was at a party a month ago where a Gen-Z twink I'd never met before asked if I'd heard about the stingray that's pregnant with shark babies. I couldn't believe it! Charlotte had truly become a national story, generating awe amongst the general public and, no doubt, heaps of attention and money for the aquarium. (An Instagram reel of Charlotte just kind of swimming around her tank nets about 40,000 views, compared to a pathetic 5,700 views for a very nice video of Shelby the epaulette shark playing with a sea urchin.) When I read the Daily Mail story spotlighting the conspiracy theory that Charlotte's pregnancy was actually a publicity stunt, I found myself nodding along.

But when I watched the aquarium's latest reels of Charlotte, specifically an update sharing that she is doing well and has been feasting on scallops and bait fish called silversides, I found myself more sympathetic to Ramer's speculation. I have never seen a pregnant stingray before, but there is no way this stingray is not pregnant. She looks absolutely enormous! Her bulge is not on her belly, as is the case with human pregnancies, but on her back. Regardless of anything the aquarium says, there's no denying that Charlotte is significantly chunkier than she was months ago, and chunkier than round stingrays are usually supposed to be, leading me to theory number two.

Theory 2: Charlotte is scamming us for snacks!

Left increasingly in doubt as Charlotte's pregnancy drones on without resolution, some commenters have begun to accuse the fish of fooling the aquarium keepers for extra food. This theory seems half-baked, but to give it due diligence, I dug into some aquarium keeper pages and forums to learn about what an overweight stingray looks like. According to the Brevard Zoo, stingrays are very good at regulating their appetite. According to one commenter on the forums, "i cant over feed mine when he is full he dont eat, but thats just mine." Given this preponderance of evidence—I'm joking!—it seems unlikely that Charlotte is suddenly bulking up her fat reserves. Also, the aquarists did do an ultrasound which they said revealed at least one pup, so unless the hoax goes deeper than we think and some elusive ultrasound technician received a duffel bag of unmarked sand dollars to doctor up some images, the most likely scenario would seem to be that Charlotte is actually pregnant, and not just bloated and scamming for snacks.

Theory 3: Charlotte is still pregnant and taking her damn time, so leave her alone!

Many years ago, I watched a video of a stingray giving birth, which was filmed by then-12-year-old Australian nature vlogger Miller Wilson. As Wilson explains in the video, he was wandering the banks of a creek by his favorite stingray viewing spot when he encountered an enormous female sitting in the shallows. At about four minutes into the video, he proceeds to flip the stingray upside-down, embrace it, and pull 12 baby stingrays out by their tails, which kind of float around in the shallows as Wilson flips them right-side up. Wilson claims the stingray needed help giving birth, which I can't say is not not true, but is something I take with a grain of salt given that this claim was made by a child.

If Charlotte has been pregnant for more than half a year, is it possible that she needs help giving birth? To investigate this, I googled "how to induce labor in a stingray" and came across an article by Ben Goldfarb in Hakai Magazine about how getting caught can induce premature labor in rays and sharks. The term is officially called capture-induced parturition, and it occurs when rays and sharks are caught and handled by humans and release their babies prematurely. Although the pups might look perfectly shaped, being birthed prematurely is probably a death sentence, Goldfarb wrote. Scientists aren't quite sure why the fish do this—whether it's a chance to give babies a shot at life if the mother knows she's doomed, or simply the result of a stress hormone overload that makes the mother lose control of her bodily functions. Looking back, it seems quite possible that Wilson's well-intentioned midwifery may have caused the stressed, pregnant ray to abort her pups.

All of this is to say that removing Charlotte's pup(s) before she is ready to birth them might doom the baby rays. There is no way to rush the truth, and Charlotte is a single mother deserving of our grace and respect. We must wait for Charlotte to plop out her young ones when she is ready. Until then, let her eat all the scallops and silversides she wants.

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