The zebra shark is named for its distinctive striped color pattern. This pattern actually changes as the sharks get older—the stripes turn into spots. In some cases, the older sharks are actually referred to as leopard sharks, but technically, they are still generally considered zebra sharks, even if they don't look like zebras anymore. A full-grown zebra shark can be 11 feet long (3.3 meters), but they begin losing their stripes when they're only 27 inches (70 cm). These sharks have a wide head, a long tail, and two ridges that run the entire length of their bodies.
Zebra sharks aren't known to be particularly dangerous to human swimmers. They are bottom feeders, generally hunting at night and resting during the daylight hours. Their favorite foods include shrimp, crabs, mollusks, and occasionally smaller fish. They are generally quite skilled at wriggling into tight spaces, which makes them especially good at finding food sources on the sea floor.
These sharks are most commonly found in the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the Red Sea. This range includes areas like South Africa, Vietnam, Australia, and Japan. They usually live close to shore in shallow places near coral reefs. They have the ability to tolerate fresh water, at least for short periods, but they probably don't spend much time in that kind of environment.
When breeding, the male shark uses claspers to fertilize the female internally. Later, she lays a very large and well-protected egg that hatches after about six months. When it's first born, a baby zebra shark is about 11 inches (30 cm) long and has to fend for itself immediately.
The zebra shark is not technically considered an endangered species, but many experts feel it has been over-fished. Their meat is quite popular in a number of different dishes, and their fins are commonly used for shark fin soup. There have not been any significant studies of the zebra shark population, but most experts think they are probably in decline.
Some people believe shark fin soup has medicinal properties, which has led to its popularity in certain parts of the world. Many shark species have had big population declines because of overfishing by commercial vessels looking for shark fins. When sharks are caught for this purpose, the fins are normally removed and the rest of the shark is generally thrown into the sea. This practice, which is called "finning," has been outlawed in many countries, including the United States.