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Stella's Story

Stella the Sand Tiger Shark

Stella, a sand tiger shark, came to Mississippi Aquarium before the August 2020 opening. She resided in Aquatic Wonders and quickly became a favorite of Aquarium members, guests, and staff.

Shortly after opening, the team that cared for Stella noticed a bend to her spine. Aquarium veterinarians performed an exam to determine the cause. Stella received pain medication and was returned to her habitat for monitoring. Initially, she was navigating the habitat and eating, but within a short time, the bend and curve to her spine were worse, and she was having difficulty swimming.

Stella swimming on exhibit with noticeable spinal curvature.
X-ray from top to bottom of the shark, noting a subluxation of her vertebrae.
Right lateral x-ray showing compression and ventral subluxation of vertebrae in spine.

Groundbreaking Procedure

Without surgical intervention, the long-term prognosis was grave. A surgical repair of this nature had never been performed on a shark and provided significant challenges due to shark anatomy. Shark skeletons are made of cartilage, not bone; therefore, it was unclear if the orthopedic devices used to correct spinal fractures in other animals would perform well in a shark.

Mississippi Aquarium veterinarians consulted with numerous veterinarians and human medical professionals and decided to attempt the first-ever spinal surgery on a shark. On September 29, 2020, Aquarium veterinarians and outside colleagues performed spinal surgery on Stella.

Stella was brought to the veterinary hospital for surgery. A rigid plastic PVC pipe was placed into her mouth as a bite block. A soft plastic tube was formed into a “Y” shape and placed into her mouth to pump water with anesthesia over her gills.

An ultrasound was used to determine where to make the initial incisions. Wet towels were placed over the shark’s body to ensure her skin was protected and would not dry out during the procedure.
Dr. Shane Boylan injects a numbing agent into the shark’s skin before surgery. The clear plastic drape allows surgeons to simultaneously have a sterile field and monitor how the shark’s skin reacts to being out of the water.
Drs. Alexa Delaune and Sean Perry make skin incisions on both sides of the shark.

From left to right: John D. Smith III, Dr. Joseph T. Cox, Jason Lowery, and Dr. Sean Perry work on identifying the subluxation in the spine on Stella’s left side. Mary Beth Tims and Dr. Shane Boylan monitor anesthesia by taking a blood sample from the tail. Drs. Grayson Cole and Alexa Delaune work to identify the subluxation on the right side of the spine.
The team faced many challenges during surgery. Sharks are incredibly muscular and do not have as much stretch to their tissues as many other animals, so it was difficult to locate the spine deep in the shark's muscles. In this photo, Dr. Alexa Delaune retracts the skin and muscle while Dr. Grayson Cole visualizes the spinal vertebrae.
Close up of orthopedic plates donated by Jason Lowery on Stella’s spine. These plates were chosen because they have screws that lock into the plates and cannot easily come loose. This type of plate and screws would be used on a person with osteoporosis or a young, growing animal.

The surgical team attempted to straighten the luxation of the spine before placing the plates; however, it was difficult to move the spine back into the proper anatomic position. Stella had been out of the water for an extended period and was starting to show signs of anesthetic complications and stress. Even though the spine was not completely straight, the team decided to place the plates to give Stella the best chance at recovery
This image shows the plates on the left and right sides of Stella's spine in the area of the subluxation. Although the spine is still slightly bent, the plates provide stability and allow the shark to swim more efficiently, and likely reduce any discomfort from abnormal vertebral movement while swimming.
Sutures were placed to close the incisions. Placing sutures into shark’s skin is difficult because it is thick and rough.
After surgery, Stella was transported to recover at the Aquarium's Aquatic Research Center (ARC).
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Stella Returns to the Aquarium

Within one hour of arriving at the ARC, Stella was swimming better than before surgery. The surgical team considered this a huge success. While recovering, Stella was trained to swim to a station to eat. She had a good appetite and gained weight while at the ARC.

Stella remained at the ARC for five months for recovery before returning to her home in the Aquatic Wonders habitat. Her care team, Aquarium guests and staff were excited to see Stella back in her habitat. Her story quickly spread, and she became an Aquarium icon.

Stella did very well for a few months but then her care team noticed she had a more pronounced curve to her spine and she was having difficulty swimming. Upon examination, new x-rays revealed that the screws had loosened and the plates had lifted off of the spine. It was evident another surgery would be necessary.

With the knowledge gathered from the last surgery, the team changed its approach. The Aquarium facilities team manufactured this specialty table to allow for positioning the x-ray box under Stella to take intra-operative radiographs.
Longer plates were placed to help increase stability. The plates were attached to what appeared to be the spinal cartilage during surgery. Post-operative x-rays revealed excessive cartilage proliferation around the previous surgery site, making it impossible to secure the plates directly to the spine. These plates were attached to the proliferative cartilage and slightly elevated off the spine.
There were more challenges with this surgery as the surgeons had to deal with large amounts of scar tissue and increased bleeding. The surgeons had to remove a piece of cartilage in order to straighten the spine. This procedure took three hours in contrast to the first procedure which lasted two hours.

Even with significant challenges, Stella recovered from the surgery and swam as normal in short bursts. About twelve hours after surgery, Stella started having complications from the procedure. Despite supportive and emergency treatment, she did not respond well, and the team made the difficult decision to euthanize our beloved Stella 24 hours after the second surgery.

Although the outcome is disappointing, Stella's case is an enormous success in many ways. This type of surgery is unprecedented in a shark. The veterinary team advanced shark medicine by attempting this complex procedure. Stella's story has been presented at national and international veterinary conferences. Stella's case is an example of "One Health," in which veterinary and human medical professionals work together to benefit a patient. The veterinary team at Mississippi Aquarium is exceptionally grateful that our colleagues donated their time and equipment to make this procedure a success and the community for their support.

Support Shark Research

Team Stella Sticker
Team Stella Sticker
This adorable 5" sticker will keep Stella forever in your heart. A portion of the proceeds supports shark and ray research and conservation.
$5.00

Surgery team from left to right: Sean Perry, DVM, Ph.D., Associate Veterinarian Mississippi Aquarium; Alexa Delaune, DVM, Vice President Veterinary Services Mississippi Aquarium; Shane Boylan, DVM, Chief Veterinarian South Carolina Aquarium; Mary Beth Tims, Mississippi Aquarium veterinary technician; Grayson Cole, DVM, DACVS, CCRP, Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists; Jason W. Lowery, LSI; Joseph T. Cox, MD, Orthopaedic Spine Surgeon, Bienville Orthopaedic Specialists; John D. Smith III, NP, Singing River Gulfport Orthopaedics

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