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Shark Week for Scientists

Shortly after the buzz of shark week died down, the scientists behind the research met for the 2015 Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Reno, NV. For 4 days, shark (yes, even many of the shark biologists you see on shark week!), fish, reptile and amphibian biologists got together to share their research and collaborate to find solutions to larger issues in conservation and biological concepts. I was one of the lucky scientists presenting my research this year. Although I could not make it to all of the fantastic talks, here are a few of the presentations I thought were most interesting:

Shark Conservation:

A full day was devoted to discussing the status of shark fisheries and management but 3 talks stood out to me, all sharing a similar message: we need to rethink how we think about conserving sharks.

Figure 1: Despite their bad reputation, sharks are less likely to injure you than you might think.

Figure 1: Despite their bad reputation, sharks are less likely to injure you than you might think. Image from curiosity.com

First let me address the elephant in the room. Despite the number of shark attacks you hear about in the news, sharks are not malevolent man-eaters. On average, there are only 50 – 75 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide each year, with an average of 10 fatalities worldwide annually. For perspective: you are more likely to die of the flu, be struck by lightning, or injured by room fresheners than of getting attacked by a shark (yes, these statistics are real; Figure 1). Here’s some more perspective: humans kill 20 – 30 million sharks each year. Want some scale? Look at this image that was too large to fit in my post. Considering how important sharks are to our ocean ecosystems, it is sad to see humans depleting populations and overfishing these incredible animals.

  • Does it matter how many sharks are killed each year?- Heather Brekke and Nicholas K Dulvy,
  • A tale of two seas: the contrasting status of Europe’s elasmobranchs– Rachel H L Walls and Nicholas K Dulvy and
  • Spotlight on the Small and Flat: Conservation status updates for select U.S. Atlantic dogfish, skates, and rays- Sonja Fordham

    Figure 2: Population declines since 1970’s of 8 shark species showing the sad state of sharky populations. Unfortunately, this is the case for many more species as well. Image from whaleofatale.org

    Figure 2: Population declines since 1970’s of 8 shark species showing the sad state of sharky populations. Unfortunately, this is the case for many more species as well. Image from Huffington Post

If you are a fan of sharks (or just like a healthy ocean) it is easy to get swept into an alarmist perspective when hearing how many sharks are killed each year. Statistics showing the vast amount of sharks killed each year  send off alarm bells warning the destruction of our oceans (Figure 2). Nicholas Dulvy asked the question: “Does it matter how many sharks are killed each year?”. While everyone in the audience said “Yes!”, Dulvy shared some statistics that you don’t hear every day. While there is still need for management, some areas have been quite successful in their management practices. Some shark landings (in places such as British Columbia) are actually sustainably harvesting sharks and taking fewer than the scientists have recommended. So contrary to the “every shark death signals a future disaster” mentality that is so commonly found, Dulvy showed us that in some cases, it may not actually matter how many sharks are killed, but rather, if the sharks killed have been harvested in a sustainable manner.

Dulvy and his coauthors do mention, as did Sonja Fordham, that while some shark fisheries are turning around- we cannot say that for all of them. We still have surprisingly little information on many shark species and cannot say how sustainable the fisheries are for many types of sharks. As Fordham argued- Great whites aren’t the only sharks in the ocean; we need to give some love to the less charismatic species as well.

How Sharks Heal:

Sharks and rays have been witnessed to heal incredibly well in fairly short periods of time (Figure 3). Scientists are now asking “how?” with the intent to apply this knowledge to our own medical practices.

Figure 3: A manta which has a fresh bite wound (left) has healed remarkably well just a year later (right).

Figure 3: A manta which has a fresh bite wound (left) has healed remarkably well just a year later (right).

  • Experimental Wounding of Atlantic Stingrays, Dasyastis sabina: Role of Epidermal Mucus in Protection of Early Stage Wound Beds- Carl Leur, Cathy walsh, Laura Edsberg, Jennifer Wyffels

Carl Leur presented the research he has been working on over the past few years, which has been funded by the Department of Defense to find better ways to treat wounded soldiers than with our current antibiotics. So how do sharks heal so quickly while avoiding a nasty, necrotic wound? Sharks and rays are covered, head to tail, with a thin mucus layer. Leur previously demonstrated that symbiotic bacteria live in this mucus and give it antimicrobial properties. In more recent research, Leur has tried to show the mechanism behind how this mucus coat helps a recently inflicted wound. What Leur and his coauthors found, is that within hours of tissue damage, mucus from intact skin travels over the damaged area, covering the wound almost like we would with a band-aid. Under the antimicrobial protection, new skin cell are able to grow and the wound begins to heal. Research in this area could revolutionize the way we treat injuries some day!


Exploration is still important!

 We have explored less of the deep sea then we have the moon. Luckily, there are still explorations to the ocean depths allowing us to uncover the mysteries held miles below the surface.

  • Dynamics of Epi-, Meso-, and Bathypelagic Fish Assemblages: A Gulf of Mexico Case Study and New Research Initialtive (DEEPEND) – Tracey Sutton et al.
  • Telepresence as an important but underutilized tool for the modern biologist – Randy Singer

    Figure 4: You can watch live streaming of deep-sea explorations at nautiluslive.org

    Figure 4: You can watch live streaming of deep-sea explorations at nautiluslive.org

Recently, DEEPEND (Deep-Pelagic Nekton Dynamics) was funded to sample the deep-sea animals in the Gulf of Mexico to document the animal communities in this area and to determine what type of environmental factors may influence ecosystem structure. Additionally, this research will try to assess the consequences of large oil spills such as the Deep Water Horizon oil spill, which occurred in 2010. Already, the scientists have discovered new species and have collected new data on deep-sea species and how the deep-sea and shallow water ecosystems interact. Over the next few years, this project could vastly improve our knowledge of the deep sea.

Here’s the good news: you can watch scientists making these exciting discoveries in real time. DEEPEND puts out cruise reports to show their findings on the mission’s website. Other projects, such as Nautilus Live actually show real time footage of deep-sea submersibles (ROVs or remotely operated vehicles) making dives to uncharted areas (Figure 4). Through telepresence, scientists that are not able to make it onto the ship are still able to contribute to the exploration and give input on what is happening in real time (anyone see the sperm whale footage on Buzzfeed? Yeah, that was Nautilus live scientists speaking over footage via telepresence). You can do the same thing and type in questions or comments for the crew members to see and answer!

Nautilus Live’s next expedition starts July 27, 2015 off the coast of California. Tune in to see some cool deep-sea science!


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