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Aspects of the Reproductive Biology of the Skate Fenestraja plutonia (Garman) off North Carolina
Andrea M. Quattrini, Melissa L. Partyka, and Steve W. Ross

Southeastern Naturalist, Volume 8, Number 1 (2009): 55–70

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2009 SOUTHEASTERN NATURALIST 8(1):55–70 Aspects of the Reproductive Biology of the Skate Fenestraja plutonia (Garman) off North Carolina Andrea M. Quattrini1,2,*, Melissa L. Partyka1,3, and Steve W. Ross1 Abstract - Fenestraja plutonia is an abundant member of the slope community in the western North Atlantic, occurring at depths of 293–1042 m. Aspects of the reproductive biology of F. plutonia were examined for specimens collected off North Carolina, in the summer–fall of 2001, 2002, and 2006. Male-to-female sex ratios were not significantly different from 1:1. The smallest mature male was 215 mm TL, and the smallest mature female was 230 mm TL. Length at 50% maturity was estimated at 231 mm TL for females and 233 mm TL for males, 89 and 90% of maximum TL, respectively. Deposited egg cases (n = 107; six containing embryos), three egg-bearing females, and 11 newly hatched juveniles were collected. It appears that the upper slope off Cape Lookout, NC, at the northern end of the species range, constitutes both an egg-laying area and possibly a nursery area for this species. Introduction Skates (Family Rajidae) are a common component of continental shelf and slope demersal communities throughout the world (e.g., Ebert 2005). An increased global concern about fisheries (including bycatch) impacts on the population structure, abundance, and distribution of skates has lead to recent increases in biological and ecological studies of skates (Ebert and Sulikowski 2007). However, life-history data exist mostly for larger and/or economically important species (e.g., Ebert 2005, Gedamke et al. 2005, Henderson et al. 2005, Ruocco et al. 2006, Sulikowski et al. 2005a). Very little is known about the ecology and biology of the deeper living (>200 m) and smaller (<400 mm total length) members of this family (Sulikowski et al. 2007a), such as Fenestraja plutonia (Garman) (Pluto Skate; Compagno 2005). Fenestraja plutonia is one of the smallest skate species found in the western North Atlantic (McEachran 2002, McEachran and de Carvalho 2002), reaching a maximum recorded total length of only 275 mm (Bigelow and Schroeder 1968). It occurs at depths of 293–1042 m (McEachran and de Carvalho 2002) and appears to be abundant on the upper continental slope. Fenestraja plutonia occurs from North Carolina to the Florida Keys (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, 1962), off Cuba (Claro and Parenti 2001), in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, off the Bahamas, Costa Rica, and the northern coast of South America (McEachran and de Carvalho 2002). Ross and Quattrini (2007) commonly observed this species near deep coral banks off the southeastern US (SEUS: North Carolina to Florida), especially off North Carolina. 1University of North Carolina Wilmington, Center for Marine Science, 5600 Marvin Moss Lane, Wilmington, NC 28409. 2Current address - Biology Department, Temple University, 1900 N 12th Street, Philadelphia, PA 19460. 3Current address - NOAA MOC-P, 1801 Fairview Avenue E, Seattle, WA 98102. *Corresponding author - quattrini@ temple.edu. 56 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 1 In the western North Atlantic, most research on skates has focused on species north of Cape Hatteras, NC, while little biological and ecological information exists for species inhabiting SE US and Gulf of Mexico waters. With the exception of taxonomic accounts, and the comprehensive studies on Raja eglanteria Bosc (Clearnose Skate) in captivity (e.g., Luer and Gilbert 1985, Luer et al. 2007) and Raja texana Chandler (Roundel Skate; Sulikowski et al. 2007b), only basic biological information (e.g., size ranges, male maturity sizes, egg case descriptions) exists for many species in the region (e.g., Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, 1962, 1968; McEachran and de Carvalho 2002). Recent cruises off North Carolina to assess slope fish and invertebrate assemblages yielded F. plutonia specimens (and their egg cases) in various reproductive stages, including advanced embryos and newly hatched juveniles. These collections provided the opportunity to describe life-history characteristics of this species. While more extensive sampling would be preferred, trawl surveys on the SE US slope (>200 m) are rare. Therefore, we hope that these data, though limited, contribute to the knowledge of skate life histories by providing information on one of the smallest members of the family. In addition, we hope to stimulate research on the ecology and biology of other poorly known deep-water species of the region. Methods The Cape Lookout coral banks, located ≈75 km off Cape Lookout, NC (Fig. 1), are the northernmost deep coral banks along the SE US slope, and are formed by the deep- or cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa (L.) (Ross and Nizinski 2007). The reefs rise as much as 80–100 m above the seafl oor and are surrounded at their bases by soft substrata mixed with coral or rock rubble. Mean bottom temperatures in these areas were 5.8–10.9 ºC, while mean bottom salinities were 35.0–35.4 (Ross and Quattrini 2007). Thirty otter trawl tows were conducted around the coral banks in low-relief reef (n = 15 tows) and non-reef (n = 15 tows) habitats (356–504 m) during summer– fall of 2001, 2002, 2004, and 2006 (Fig. 1, Table 1). An additional tow was completed east of the Cape Lookout B area in 2004 in deeper (657–910 m) off-reef habitat (Fig. 1). Prior to trawling, the area was surveyed with sonar so that trawls avoided major coral areas; however, the trawling objective was to tow as close to coral mounds as possible. The otter trawl (4.9-m head rope, 38.1-mm mesh) was towed for 29–45 min at ≈2 knot (3.7 km/hr) ground speed. All skates and egg cases were preserved at sea in 10% formalin seawater solution and later transferred to 40% isopropanol. Preserved skates were identified, sexed, weighed (W) to the nearest 0.1 g, and measured to the nearest mm total length (TL) and disk width (D). During the August 2001 cruise, 20 specimens were measured (D, Table 1) and discarded at sea; therefore, these specimens were excluded from analyses. Left and right claspers were measured (mm) from the point of insertion at the cloaca to the tip (inner clasper length; LC), and the larger of the two LC were used in analyses. 2009 A.M. Quattrini, M.L. Partyka, and S.W. Ross 57 For each individual, either testes or ovaries were weighed to the nearest 0.001 g to calculate total gonad weights for males (TW) and females (OW), respectively. Oviducal gland width (mm) was measured across the widest section of the gland, perpendicular to the oviduct (following Gedamke et al. 2005). Egg cases were measured in length and width (mm), excluding the horns; the horns were measured separately for egg cases that were intact. We determined that egg cases collected with the otter trawl were from F. plutonia because: 1) identical egg cases were present in egg-bearing females, Figure 1. Otter trawl tows (summer–fall, 2001–2006) at the Cape Lookout A and B deep coral areas off North Carolina (NC). 58 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 1 2) F. plutonia embryos were found within trawled egg cases, and 3) measurements and description of egg cases closely follow Bigelow and Schroeder’s (1962) description. Sexual maturity was determined for each individual using criteria based on previous studies (e.g., Ebert 2005, Henderson et al. 2005, Walmsley-Hart et al. 1999). Immature females had undifferentiated, thin, leaf-like ovaries, undeveloped oviducal glands, and thread-like oviducts and uteri. Maturing females were identified by the presence of small (≤1 mm diameter) white oocytes in the ovaries, developing oviducal glands, and narrow oviducts and uteri. Mature females had ovaries that contained small to large (<4 mm diameter) oocytes with one to four of the larger (3–4 mm) ones yolked. They also had developed oviducal glands, thickened and tubular oviducts, and uteri that were thickened or obviously stretched. Maturity criteria were supported by measurements taken from the mature females that had egg cases in their reproductive tracts. Males were determined to be immature if their claspers were fl exible, not fully calcified, and did not extend past the posterior margin of the pelvic fins. Epididymides and vasa deferentia in immature males were thin and undeveloped. Maturing males possessed claspers that extended beyond the pelvic fins and were not fully calcified; epididymides and vasa deferentia were thickened, but were not fully coiled. Males were classified as mature when claspers were both elongated and fully calcified and alar thorns were well developed. Mature males had fully developed testes and thickened, fully coiled epididymides and vasa deferentia. Table 1. Fenestraja plutonia data from three cruises conducted off North Carolina. I = immature, A = maturing, M = mature, and U = undetermined (specimens discarded at sea). Total Total Disk Gonad number length (mm) width (mm) Weight (g) weight (g) GSI August 2001 Female–I 4 176–229 72–101 15.2–37.8 0.114–0.214 0.57–0.94 Female–A* 1 216 99 32.9 Female–M 8 230–260 101–115 45.0–65.9 0.450–0.964 0.84–1.81 Male–I 1 204 89 24.5 0.162 0.67 Male–A 3 223–245 110–112 30.8–48.5 0.219–0.508 0.72–1.21 Male–M 6 230–241 110–115 44.6–62.8 0.635–0.827 1.26–1.63 U 20 57–121 August 2002 Males–M 1 246 116 48.4 0.556 1.16 September 2006 Female–I 18 61–245 28–109 0.7–43.9 0.002–0.234 0.21–0.76 Female–A 1 239 116 55.9 0.262 0.47 Female–M 5 232–252 106–112 49.9–61.4 0.652–1.329 1.23–2.28 Male–I 11 87–232 38–109 1.8–36.6 0.002–0.280 0.11–0.85 Male–A 5 235–247 104–115 40.0–56.3 0.257–0.559 0.58–1.00 Male–M 11 215–258 104–129 35.4–67.8 0.506–0.771 0.97–1.58 Total 95 61–260 28–129 0.7–67.8 0.002–1.329 0.11–2.28 *One ovary of this maturing female was damaged 2009 A.M. Quattrini, M.L. Partyka, and S.W. Ross 59 Male-to-female sex ratios were calculated for all specimens and also at each maturity stage. Chi-square tests with a Yates correction (Zar 1999) were used to determine if the ratios were significantly different from 1:1. Regressions for D–TL (linear) and W–TL relationships (W = aTLb) were examined for both male and female skates. Analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) was used to test for differences in these relationships between sexes. We used the D–TL regression to estimate the TL of skates with damaged tails (two cases). A two-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) on log-transformed data was used to determine whether TL and W differed between males and females at all three maturity stages. Reproductive data were analyzed to determine the relationship of sexual maturity to size for both males and females. LC and TW for males and OW for females were each plotted against TL, and TW and OW were plotted against W. Rapid increases in these parameters relative to TL were used as indicators of the onset of sexual maturity (e.g., Ebert 2005, Sulikowski et al. 2005a, Walmsley-Hart et al. 1999). We also calculated the gonadosomatic index (GSI = OW or TW / [W- OW or TW] x 100) for both males and females to provide baseline summer–fall data for specimens off North Carolina. One male and seven females were eliminated from gonad analyses because of damage to the gonads. In addition, proportional maturity for each sex was calculated. First, individuals were assigned a maturity category (binomial data: immature = 0, mature = 1) and placed into 10-mm size classes. For each size class per sex, we then calculated mean TL of individuals and the proportion of mature to immature individuals. Logistic regression models of proportional maturity versus TL were then applied to each sex to estimate length at 50% maturity (TL50%; e.g., Roa et al. 1999). Chi-square goodness of fit was used to test how well proportional maturity data conformed to the models. Results Ninety-five F. plutonia specimens were collected at depths of 378–504 m in 20 of the 31 otter trawl tows (356–910 m; Fig. 1). Similar numbers were collected in August 2001 (10 tows, 43 specimens) and in September 2006 (14 tows, 51 specimens) (Table 1). Only one individual was collected out of 4 tows in August 2002. No skates were collected in September 2001 or June 2004, probably because of reduced trawl sampling (1 tow in September, 4 tows in June) during these cruises. Besides the collection of 11 recently hatched individuals, six embryos, and five egg cases filled with yolk (including one egg case that was extruded upon collection) in September 2006, there were no other spatial or temporal patterns in the distribution of individuals by maturity stage or sex. Male-to-female sex ratios were not significantly different from 1:1 at any maturity stage (all stages: χ2 = 0.00; mature: χ2 = 0.52; maturing: χ2 = 2.36; immature: χ2 = 2.48; P > 0.05). Of the 75 skates that were sexed (20 individuals discarded at sea), 37 were females (13 mature) and 38 were males (18 mature). Eleven immature skates collected in September 2006 were 60 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 1 much smaller than all other immature individuals (>170 mm TL, 75 mm D) and eight of these were females (61–108 mm TL, 28–42 mm D, 0.7–2.7 g) and three were males (87–107 mm TL, 48–44 mm D, 1.8–3.3 g). D–TL relationships were significant for both sexes (females: D = 0.47TL - 3.93, r2 = 0.99, P < 0.05; males: D = 0.49TL - 6.17, r 2 = 0.97, P < 0.05) and not significantly different (ANCOVA: F = 0.35, P > 0.05) between sexes (Fig. 2A). W–TL relationships were also significant (females: W = 1.43X10-6 * TL3.17, r 2 = 0.99, P < 0.05; males: W = 9.04X10-7 * TL3.25, r2 = 0.98, P < 0.05), but Figure 2. A. Total length (TL)–disk width (D) linear relationship. B. weight (W) = aTLb relationship in both female (open circles, dotted line, n = 37) and male (black squares, solid line, n = 38) Fenestraja plutonia collected off North Carolina. 2009 A.M. Quattrini, M.L. Partyka, and S.W. Ross 61 there was no significant difference between males and females (ANCOVA: F = 0.76, P > 0.05) (Fig. 2B). All maturity stages of male F. plutonia were collected during this study. Maturing males ranged from 223 to 247 mm TL (104–115 mm D, 30.8– 56.3 g), and the largest immature male was 232 mm TL (109 mm D, 36.6 g) (Table 1). The smallest mature male was 215 mm TL (104 mm D, 35.4 g), indicating first maturity at 83% of maximum TL (258 mm TL). TL50% was 233 mm (χ2 = 17.24, P < 0.05; Fig. 3), 90% of maximum TL. The relationship of LC–TL was significant (LC = 0.825e0.016TL, r2 = 0.80, P < 0.05) with a sharp increase in LC around 230–240 mm TL, indicating the onset of maturity (Fig. 4A). For mature males, LC ranged from 50.0 to 60.0 mm, LC for immature males ranged from 4.0 to 20.0 mm, and LC for maturing males were 20.0–55.0 mm. Two maturing males had LC (51 and 55 mm) within the range of mature males. Similar to the LC–TL relationship, TW rapidly increased around 230–240 mm TL (TW = 0.0002e0.032TL, r2 = 0.92, P < 0.05) (Fig. 4B). TW also increased with W (TW = 0.001W1.626, r2 = 0.96, P < 0.05); however, this was a more gradual increase than an abrupt change as observed in the TW–TL relationship (Fig. 4C). Mature males had higher GSIs (mean = 1.24 ± 0.05 SE, n = 17) compared with maturing (mean = 0.87 ± 0.07 SE, n = 8) and immature (mean = 0.45 ± 0.06 SE, n = 12) males (Table 1). Figure 3. Fitted logistic curves of proportional maturity (P) of Fenestraja plutonia collected off North Carolina in relation to total length (TL) in females (open circles, dotted line) and males (black squares, solid line). Symbols are observed values and lines are predicted curves. TL50% is indicated on graphs with perpendicular black lines. 62 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 1 Figure 4. Relationships of: A. total length (TL) to clasper length (LC); B. testes weight (TW) to TL; and C. TW to weight (W) in mature (black squares, n = 18 for LC, n = 17 for TW), maturing (gray squares, n = 8), and immature (open squares, n = 12) male Fenestraja plutonia collected off North Carolina. 2009 A.M. Quattrini, M.L. Partyka, and S.W. Ross 63 Females matured at relatively the same size as males. TL and W were not significantly different (two-way ANOVA, TL: F = 0.39, W: F = 0.44, P > 0.05) between males and females at any maturity stage. The largest immature female was 245 mm TL (109 mm D, 43.9 g), while the two maturing females were 216 and 239 mm TL (99 and 116 mm D, 32.9 and 55.9 g; Table 1). The smallest mature female was 230 mm TL (101 mm D, 45.0 g), indicating first maturity at 88% of maximum TL (260 mm TL). TL50% was 231 mm (χ2 = 27.91, P < 0.05; Fig. 3), 89% of maximum TL. OW–TL (OW = 0.001e0.028TL; r2 = 0.92) and OW–W (OW = 0.009e0.081W; r2 = 0.85) relationships were significant (P < 0.05; Fig. 5). There was little change in OW with increasing size (TL or W) until ca. 230–240 mm TL and 50 g, when a sharp Figure 5. Relationships of ovarian weight (OW) to: A. total length (TL); and B. weight (W) in mature (black circles, n = 9), maturing (gray circles, n = 1), and immature (open circles, n = 20) female Fenestraja plutonia collected off North Carolina. 64 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 1 increase indicated the onset of maturity (Fig. 5). Mature females had higher GSI (mean = 1.50 ± 0.09 SE, n = 9) compared to immature females (mean = 0.55 ± 0.04 SE, n = 20) (Table 1). Both ovaries of only one maturing female could be weighed; therefore, we could not compare GSIs of maturing individuals with other maturity stages. Oviducal glands were undeveloped in immature individuals, while they were ca. 1% of TL (2–3 mm wide) in maturing individuals and 4–5% of TL (10–13 mm wide) in mature and eggbearing individuals. Three egg-bearing females were collected near the Cape Lookout deep coral banks. Of the two females collected in September 2006 from the same trawl, one (232 mm TL, 106 mm D, 56.8 g) had a partially developed egg case in each uterus. Both cases were of near equal size, though the case on the right side was not fully extruded from the oviducal gland (Fig. 6A). Cases were yellowish-green in color, smooth with longitudinal striations, and covered with mucus. The anterior horns (anterior to the embryo at hatching) of both cases were folded back in loops across the ventral case surfaces. Ovaries contained large (3–4 mm) yolky oocytes; the OW was 1.268 g and the GSI was 2.28, the highest GSI of all females. The oviducal glands of this female were 10 mm wide. The second egg-bearing female (235 mm TL, 105 mm D, 61.4 g) released a fully formed egg case shortly after collection. The case was golden-brown, smooth with longitudinal striations, covered in mucus, and filled with yolk. The right ovary was thin and defl ated (0.383 g), while the left ovary (0.946 g) contained large (3–4 mm), yolky oocytes. Both oviducal glands were 10 mm wide. The GSI for this individual was 2.21. The third female (240 mm TL, 108 mm D, 53.7 g), collected in August 2001, had an egg case present in each uterus; however, egg cases were in early stages of extrusion with anterior horns (ca. 5 mm) of each case formed. The left ovary of this female was damaged, but the right ovary contained large, yolky Figure 6. Fenestraja plutonia egg cases collected off North Carolina in different stages of development. A: Partially formed egg case removed from egg-bearing female (232 mm TL); B: fully formed case with yolk; C: egg case with early embryo indicated by arrow; D–G: advanced embryos with varying amounts of yolk-sac remaining. 2009 A.M. Quattrini, M.L. Partyka, and S.W. Ross 65 oocytes and weighed 0.872 g. The oviducal gland on the right was 10 mm wide, while the left was 13 mm wide. In addition to the egg cases in utero, 107 egg cases of F. plutonia were collected by trawl during the September 2006 and August 2001 cruises near the Cape Lookout coral banks. Cases were scattered throughout the trawl catches, and there was no indication that they were attached to any bottom structures. Deposited egg cases were golden to brown in color (darker than those in utero) and smooth with longitudinal striations and had long, fl exible anterior horns and short, stout posterior horns (Fig. 6). Egg cases ranged in length from 20 to 25 mm (mean = 22.3 mm ± 0.1 SE) and in width from 12 to 15 mm (mean = 14.3 ± 0.1 SE). The horns on many specimens were damaged; however, of the few that could be measured, anterior horns ranged from 25 to 28 mm and posterior horns ranged from 8 to 10 mm. Four egg cases were filled with yolk with no visible embryos (Fig. 6B). Two others held mainly yolk and very early embryos yet to develop typical rajoid features (Fig. 6C). Four egg cases held embryos that were in advanced stages of development and easily identified to species (deposited in the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences Ichthyology Collection). The largest female embryo (NCSM 47061, 41 mm TL, 20 mm D, 0.658 g; Fig. 6G) had a small amount of yolk remaining external to the abdomen, with a large amount visible under the abdominal wall. The smaller female embryo (NCSM 47060, 37 mm TL, 15 mm D, 0.317 g) was well developed with little yolk (Fig. 6F). The largest male embryo (NCSM 47060, 44 mm TL, 18 mm D, 0.372 g, 2.0 mm LC) had a small amount of yolk remaining and was partially emerged from its case (Fig. 6E). While the smaller male embryo (NCSM 47061, 28 mm TL, 12 mm D, 0.211 g, 2.0 mm LC) still possessed a large yolk sac (Fig. 6D), it was well developed and possessed adult characteristics. These embryo data combined with data on the 11 smallest juveniles collected indicated that hatching occurs at ca. 41–61 mm TL for females and ca. 44–87 mm TL for males. Discussion Sexual dimorphism in skates is highly variable. It is largely species dependent and can even change among populations within the same species (e.g., Braccini and Chiaramonte 2002; Ebert 2005; Ebert et al. 2008; Mabragaña and Cousseau 2004; Mabragaña et al. 2002; Oddone et al. 2005; Richards et al. 1963; Ruocco et al. 2006; Sulikowski et al. 2007b; Templeman 1987a,b). However, many species of skates show little to no difference in size at maturity between sexes (Ebert 2005, Ebert et al. 2008, Mabragaña et al. 2002, Matta and Gunderson 2007, Ruocco et al. 2006, Walmsley-Hart et al. 1999). Unlike their viviparous relatives, there may be no advantages for oviparous females to attain larger sizes to produce larger young (Ebert et al. 2008). Also, attaining first maturity at 75–90% of maximum TL is indicative of many species of skates and suggests that after reaching sexual maturity, skates grow very little (Ebert 2005, Ebert et al. 2008, Sulikowski et al. 2007b). Fenestraja plutonia fits this life-history 66 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 1 strategy, as both sexes matured at similar sizes at high (>80%) percentages of maximum TL. In addition to size at maturity, F. plutonia did not exhibit sexual dimorphism in relative sizes or disk shape. Sexual dimorphism in disk shape occurs when male disks become more bell-shaped with maturation, which results in differences in the D–TL relationship between sexes (Ebert et al. 2008). In comparison to other small (<400 mm maximum TL) skates for which reproductive data are known—Neoraja stehmanni (Hulley) (South African Pygmy Skate; Ebert et al. 2008), Dipturus polyommata (Ogilby) (Argus Skate; Kyne et al. 2008), and Psammobatis extenta (Garman) (Zipper Sand Skate; Braccini and Chiaramonte 2002)—F. plutonia is the only small species that displays a lack of sexual dimorphism in size at maturity and relative sizes. Some elasmobranchs segregate by size, sex, or maturity status (Pratt 1993, Springer 1967). Sexual or ontogenetic segregation was not observed in the present study (at least not at the scale allowed by trawl sampling), as several life stages of male and female F. plutonia were collected within the same geographic area in the summer–fall, often within the same trawl. The 1:1 sex ratio of F. plutonia in this study is typical of many rajids (Ebert 2005; Ebert et al. 2008; Gedamke et al. 2005; Henderson et al. 2005; Sulikowski et al. 2005b, 2007a), and further suggests a lack of segregation at this time and location. It is possible, however, that migration of both sexes of F. plutonia to the Cape Lookout area occurred during the sampling period for reproductive purposes, and size or sexual segregation could occur at other times and/ or places or at small spatial scales. Although data on F. plutonia movements and population structure are lacking, our data and those of Ross and Quattrini (2007) suggest that the coral bank area off Cape Lookout, NC (at the northern end of this species’ range) represents important habitat for summer–fall reproduction. During submersible operations (65 dives, summer–fall 2000–2005) around deep reef areas throughout the SE US (Ross and Quattrini 2007), 52% of the observed F. plutonia (n = 99) occurred near the Cape Lookout banks, and both sexes were similar in size (≈100–120 mm D). This skewed distribution of observed F. plutonia toward the slope off Cape Lookout supports the hypothesis that the area is relatively more important than other areas, especially considering that Ross and Quattrini (2007) surveyed deep reefs over a 700-km range in 366–783 m depths. In situ observations of egg cases (presumably Scyliorhinus retifer (Garman) [Chain Catshark]) attached to soft corals in 533 m in the Gulf of Mexico suggested that deep-coral areas may be important nursery habitat for certain oviparous elasmobranchs (Etnoyer and Warrenchuk 2007). Ebert and Davis (2007) also documented nursery areas for two unidentified skate species in deep seamount and hardbottom habitats with the use of in situ observations, while Richards et al. (1963) speculated that rough, hard bottom habitats were important egg-laying areas for Leucoraja erinacea (Mitchell) (Little Skate). Ross and Quattrini (2007) did not observe any egg cases attached to hardbottom or deep-water corals 2009 A.M. Quattrini, M.L. Partyka, and S.W. Ross 67 along the SEUS slope. Nevertheless, F. plutonia lays eggs on or near the Cape Lookout coral banks, as evidenced by the collections of females with egg cases both in utero and being extruded upon collection and egg cases in various stages of embryonic development. In addition, this area may be a nursery area for this species, as newly hatched juveniles were collected. More data, however, throughout this species’ range is needed to assess whether F. plutonia lays eggs along the entire SEUS slope or in defined areas such as off Cape Lookout. Skate species exhibit varying patterns in reproductive cycles, such as reproduction throughout the year, a prolonged annual cycle with periods of increased reproductive activity, or a well-defined annual or biennial reproductive cycle (Hamlett and Koob 1999, Richards et al. 1963, Wourms 1977). With the exception of R. eglanteria (Fitz and Daiber 1963), western North Atlantic skates from coastal waters north of Cape Hatteras, NC reproduce all year long with or without peaks in reproductive activity (McEachran 1970, 2002; Richards et al. 1963; Sulikowski et al. 2004, 2005b, 2007a). Our results indicate that F. plutonia reproduces at least in the late summer– early fall off Cape Lookout, NC, carries a single egg case per uterus (single oviparity), and lays two egg cases near or at the same time. Additionally, the collection of egg cases in various stages of embryonic development, along with very young juveniles and females with egg cases in utero may indicate an extended breeding season and/or multiple clutches in this area. The low GSI values for mature (and egg-bearing) female F. plutonia are comparable (GSI range = 1.0–2.0 throughout the year) to females that reproduce all year long, such as Amblyraja radiata (Donovan) (Thorny Skate), Malacoraja senta (Garman) (Smooth Skate) (Sulikowski et al. 2005b, 2007a), and P. extenta (Braccini and Chiaramonte 2002). Relatively low GSI values may be normal for skate species that continually reproduce, compared with species that produce large, active gonads for annual or biennial reproduction, such as Sympterygia bonapartii Müller and Henle (Smallnose Fanskate; Mabragaña et al. 2002). Compared to the males of A. radiata and M. senta, male F. plutonia (and male P. extenta) exhibited high GSI values. Whether the high GSI values of male F. plutonia and P. extenta are due to differences in reproductive strategies (e.g., timing of sperm production, sperm storage in females) or maximum sizes/weights is unknown. Despite limited sampling, this study contributed information on the biology of a poorly known species of Rajidae that occurs off the SEUS. Previously, the only life-history information for F. plutonia included size ranges and description of egg cases (Bigelow and Schroeder 1953, 1962, 1968). To fully assess the reproductive strategy used by F. plutonia and other small members of Rajidae, data are needed on incubation periods, age at first reproduction, reproductive periodicity, and growth rates. In addition, comparative studies are needed between shallow- and deep-water skate species in the region to assess differences in reproductive cycles and associated environmental parameters. Since deep-water skates are a major component 68 Southeastern Naturalist Vol. 8, No. 1 of the SEUS slope benthic fauna, future research efforts should concentrate on temporal and regional sampling to better understand the biology and ecology of these species. 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