by Jayne Gardiner, assistant professor of biology at New College of Florida.
This article was originally published in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
On television, it’s Shark Week, Discovery Channel’s annual lineup of shark-focused programming. Here in Sarasota, New College’s Shark Week happened back in April, when students and scientists, boarded the research vessel R/V Bellows; bound for the offshore Gulf of Mexico waters, in search of knowledge, adventure – and sharks.
Sharks clearly fascinate us — Shark Week, in its 29th season, is the longest-running cable television programming event, and it’s one reason students flock to courses on sharks. While the content has come a long way, shark experts agree, much of it is still sensationalized, and needlessly so. We don’t need Michael Phelps racing a Great White — we have cutting-edge science and, on the Bellows, real sharks!
Sarasota’s Shark Week was supported by a state-funded grant from the Florida Institute of Oceanography. Without these awards, many institutions would not have access the offshore environment. Awards provide unique opportunities for students to be involved in oceanographic research. Sadly, the future of these programs hangs in the balance, as FIO’s operating funds were vetoed in the most recent legislative session. The funds granted to New College provide a great example of the far-reaching impacts of each individual award.
Over the course of five days, 40 undergraduate students from New College’s Biology of Sharks, Skates, and Rays course and Eckerd College’s Elasmobiology course got to apply what they had learned in their classrooms and labs. They tagged and released sharks, working alongside graduate students from the University of North Florida and the University of Florida and scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory and the Nature Conservancy. Overall, this powerhouse team of current and future scientists contributed to over a dozen research projects, on topics from reproductive biology to population genetics to migratory behavior. Together, we accomplished an incredible list of goals at once, demonstrating for the students the strength of collaborative work.
The results of these studies will improve our understanding of sharks and their role, not just in Sarasota’s coastal waters, but in the larger Gulf of Mexico ecosystem. For example, UNF is using ultrasound and blood hormone assays to develop a rapid shark pregnancy test. The Nature Conservancy is assessing the migratory movements of large coastal sharks with satellite tags that report the position of the animal each time its fin breaks the surface. For the last several decades, Mote has been keeping track of the relative abundance of shark species by examining the numbers of animals caught on these research cruises.
My own work focuses on the sensory cues sharks use in homing behavior, as females return to their natal nursery areas when they are ready to give birth to pups. I use acoustic tags to follow animals for several years, tracking their position as they swim past underwater listening stations. Arrays of these listening stations are both costly to set up and time-consuming to maintain, so until recently, researchers were generally limited to tracking their animals over small areas.
Now, through yet another great example of the power of collaboration, scientists share information from their arrays, effectively creating a massive Gulf-wide array of over 1100 receivers. Through the Integrated Tracking of Aquatic Animals in the Gulf of Mexico (iTAG) network, I can follow my tagged animals not only in Sarasota, but also as they migrate to other states’ waters and then later return home. UF and Mote also take advantage of the iTAG network, tracking bull sharks tagged on the Bellows as they interact with, and sometimes prey upon, dolphins.
The impacts of this research trip extend beyond the scientists on board and will contribute to policies on fishing and conservation. We collected small tissue samples for colleagues who use genetic information to determine if each species consists of one interbreeding Gulf of Mexico population, or several separate populations. These data are crucial for addressing the big questions on the management of shark species. For threatened species, like the great hammerhead, we focus on conserving populations. For very abundant species, like the commercially and recreationally important blacktip shark, we focus on ensuring sustainable harvests to keep both animal populations, and our Florida economy, healthy.
That week in April was impressive, with 54 sharks caught; including blacktip sharks, bull sharks, blacknose sharks, nurse sharks, tiger sharks, and a great hammerhead, but in some ways, every week at New College is Shark Week. Students in my classes regularly participate in ongoing research in our own backyard, Sarasota Bay. Here, we study juvenile sharks, contributing our data to NOAA’s Gulf of Mexico Shark Pupping and Nursery survey. One of our goals is to understand why some species are less abundant here than in other nearby shark nurseries, such as Tampa Bay. We surmise that it may be because so much of the Sarasota Bay shoreline is altered, with seawalls replacing mangroves. The largest remaining stretch of natural shoreline, an area we currently study, may soon be developed by the proposed Aqua by the Bay project.
By contributing to real research, our undergraduate students are learning by doing, which truly embodies the educational experience at New College. We focus on experiential learning; teaching the students science is a process and not a set of facts. That was the essence of our Shark Week on the Gulf: asking a question, designing an experiment, gathering data to help answer that question, and then interpreting the results, which are not always what you expect. In fact, some of the most exciting discoveries come from the unexpected, especially when you’re left scratching your head and saying, “How the heck did that happen?”
Science breaks down preconceived notions about how the world works. It is a conversation, with each new study, whether it confirms or contradicts previous work, ultimately adding to our knowledge. We teach our students not to accept the headline at face value, but to look beneath the surface and think critically about how the experiment was conducted. This basic scientific literacy is important, it allows them to understand and appreciate the world around them, regardless of the path they choose in life.