Worldwide SciComm Challenge: #SharkSafetySlogan

Can you remember how young you were when you were first taught stop, drop, and roll? How about turn around, don’t drown? Slogans are abridged stories that fulfill our human need to convey information quickly and memorably. Their uses range from social connection, cooperation, and informing cohorts of risk. Sayings like the above are effective because of these three main achievements:

  1. They are memorable.
  2. They incorporate knowledge with action.
  3. And by fearlessly acknowledging rare, potentially fatal, risks – they create a constructive dialogue.

Imagine a world without stop, drop and roll where children are simply taught that there is an incredibly rare risk that they could catch fire, and that’s it. While the statistic may be true, just providing the information would result in a classroom full of hysterical first-graders. A great slogan captured and presents the risk fearlessly.

Put another way, slogans are science communication wins. So let’s get together and apply this human craft of slogan creation to another incredibly rare risk: shark encounters! Your risk of encountering a shark is extremely low–a statistic that is repeated ad nauseam. But just like our classroom of traumatized first-graders, stats alone aren’t always enough. Enter the #SharkSafetySlogan challenge!

Join us on twitter at #SharkSafetySlogan to crowd-source a memorable slogan. Shark experts and organizations from across the globe will be sharing sharky information to help you on your scicomm quest. Anyone who visits a beach is encouraged to participate!

Remember, keep it memorable, brief, and incorporate shark smarts with actions. An example could be:

Seals? Seabirds?! See ya!

The above slogan is brief, memorable, and incorporates the knowledge that an abundance of seals and seabirds is a strong indication that sharks are present, and you’re better off not swimming juuuust yet.

Come join us at #SharkSafetySlogan and see if your slogan ends up with the most likes and retweets! I’ll be leading the charge at @ScienceRhapsody. See you on the interwebs!

The dark side of “Stop the Scroll”

I have had the pleasure of working communications roles in several industries over the years.  During this time, I’ve seen the rise of a dubious campaign metric commonly referred to as “Stop the Scroll” (or “Swipe”).  This metric has conscientious roots.  Online communications strategists have less than a second to grab a potential donor, stakeholder, or client’s attention.  Good strategists have read Craig McClain’s paper, as a great visual will make your thumb quiver before scrolling on to a video of dogs doing literally anything.  In this light, stop the scroll seems like a pretty good metric for individual post efficacy.  Time is the currency of experience, after all.

Can we count the seconds people spend learning untrue facts as progress towards our campaign? Or change the campaign goals to justify a resource-heavy shit post? 

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Why I don’t bite everyone that stresses me out: The cost-benefit analysis of predators

There is controversy whenever a human creates a close interaction with a wild animal.  Those arguing in favour of the human’s behavior inevitably settle on the argument that if the animal didn’t like it, the animal would have bit them or exhibited some sudden reaction to the human.  People who propose this argument have a very limited understanding of animal behavior.

Real talk, I used to believe this totally incorrect argument, and I will never forget the day that changed my perspective forever.  I was a budding zoologist working on a remote island with a group of scientists that were ringing cormorants.  The cormorants squawked for awhile, but then got “used” to our presence and calmed down.  I was reassured that we weren’t causing them any distress as we worked nearby, otherwise I expected that they would have shown it by either continuing to squawk or simply fly away.  Then, I noticed a few dead cormorants near where we worked.  I thought that they must have died before we arrived.  However, the senior researcher explained that they had been alive moments before but most likely died due to the stress of our presence.  That was an extremely powerful lesson in my young career and it challenged what I thought I “understood” about human interactions with animals.  Keep in mind, I was known for being an animal whisperer of sorts in my youth (see below) and truly believed that my special calm and confident nature could be detected by animals, and that they would accept my presence more readily than those who didn’t have my nature.  That FernGully perspective is wrong and egocentric.  There are few scenarios where our presence isn’t horribly stressful and disruptive to wild animals.   

Squirrel demonstrating a cost/benefit analysis = the benefit of free food is higher than the stress my tie-dyed presence is causing.

Large predators are no exception.  They are just as vulnerable to our stress as cormorants and just as unlikely to express it externally, because the cost of those behaviors is expensive.  Predators have severe energetic constraints and are constantly calculating whether their actions are worth sacrificing energy for, this is a cost/benefit analysis.  We do similar analyses all the time.  For example, I have a Trader Joe’s that is ~30 minutes from my home.  The food there is delicious and less expensive than my local grocery store.  However, I don’t go to The Joe every time I am hungry.  Even though I would save money on discount blue cheese dip there, I would spend more money in fuel for my car – meaning the entire trip would cost me more in the long run.  The costs of this behavior is too high and not worth it.

White sharks are especially discerning since they can burn a lot of energy quickly and are unlikely to encounter large meals in the open ocean to refuel.  So they make conservative decisions that prioritize maintaining energy stores (especially during gestation when a large portion of their energy budget is developing shark embryos).  In the recent case of large white sharks scavenging from a sperm whale in Hawaii, there were several divers in the water creating close interactions with the sharks for social media purposes.  Controversy ensued and the idea that the white sharks must have “enjoyed” these interactions otherwise they would have swam away or bit the divers has been presented.  But it is not supported.  First, white sharks full of whale blubber are experiencing some pretty hardcore torpor.  Also, blubber is very positivity buoyant, meaning a stomach full of blubber is essentially the same as if we ate a ton of foam and then tried to swim about.  White sharks at whale carcasses are typically slow-moving with low aggression, even towards each other.  It’s not that whale blubber makes them “happy,” it’s that being aggressive and swimming fast when there are going to be many other white sharks around AND you’re going to have a stomach full of floaty blubber is energetically expensive and the costs of these behaviors are too high.

Figure 4 from Fallows, C., Gallagher, A. J., & Hammerschlag, N. (2013). White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) scavenging on whales and its potential role in further shaping the ecology of an apex predator. PLoS One8(4), e60797.

Does that mean diving with full-bellied white sharks is safe?  Absolutely not – for them or for you.  It doesn’t matter how well you think you “know” a predator – species or individual – they are still dangerous.  We all know the list of fatal tragedies that start off with well-known humans believing that they have enough experience to take big risks, and each of those fatalities ends with the animal suffering, too.  For the sharks, disrupting a rare feeding event has long-term implications.  The stress caused – whether they exhibit that stress externally or not – is burning their limited energy, forcing them to recalculate their future behaviours until (if?) they encounter the next windfall.  Also – although currently undocumented – it’s a common thought amongst shark researchers that mating could occur at large feeding events like whale carcasses since it’s provides male sharks an opportunity to take advantage of the large female’s torpor to attempt mating approaches (I personally believe the same is true at seal colonies).  Boats and divers disrupt these behaviours.

I don’t bite every person that causes me stress.  I don’t full-sprint away from every situation that causes me stress.  That doesn’t mean that I am not experiencing stress that impacts my behavior and health.  The same is true for every one of these close animal interactions created by humans.  It’s alarming to me when those humans say that they are somehow especially qualified, and that their experience alone creates these “safe” encounters.  It’s not.  You’re benefiting from the cost a large predator doesn’t want to incur by demonstrating its stress to you – but as we’ve unfortunately seen several times, when the scales are finally tipped, unnecessary tragedies do occur.

Gills Club Shark Tales: An online and in-person sharkstravaganza 19-20 September at NEAQ!

Note:  This post has been updated on 18 September 2017.  

Friends, Researchers, Countrywomen, lend me your ears!

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and New England Aquarium are hosting a completely free two-day event, 19-20 September, featuring an amazing line-up of shark scientists and enthusiasts, including:

Keynote Speakers:

Susan Goldberg – Editor in Chief of National Geographic Magazine

Wendy Benchley – Renowned global voice for shark protection and co-founder of the prestigious Peter Benchley Ocean Awards.

Gills Club Science Team Speakers:
Dr. Michelle Heupel – Australian Institute of Marine Science
Dr. Alison Kock – South African National Parks
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What makes high school girls love sharks but avoid science

A shortened – and less ribald – version of this post was published 24-07-2017 in the International Business Times.

Ah, the transition from middle school to high school… the one part of adolescence no one reminisces about fondly.  It’s the time in our lives where mental and physical changes happen at pace without any apparent continuity, and we feel compelled to blend in.  This is the same time when most young girls’ interest in STEM stops, and in my educator/zoologist opinion, these events are related.

What does our culture gear teenage girls to prioritize?  Making varsity teams, growing boobs to the correct size and at the correct time, and completing enough social jostling to earn the superhuman prom date.  Most of the STEM-geared young girls I have worked with couldn’t care less about the above – but the attitude of their peers changes by the end of 8th grade.

http://subtubitles.tumblr.com/post/30828711121

Students of both sexes in 6th grade will happily discuss how rainbows are made and share their mutual wonder if the natural world, but those conversations quickly become “immature” when the puberty plague takes hold.  It’s also in 8th grade when boys enter a race to the bottom of inappropriate jokes fueled by mutual insecurities.  Suddenly, STEM-interested pupils find that their friends are segregating, fashion forward girls to one side and crude boys to the other, leaving a handful who want to discuss the space/time continuum floundering somewhere in the middle.

Then, regardless of where you sit on the social divide, hormones kick in.  This critical time is when young people figure out how to create partnerships, what constitutes a good or bad relationship, and the physics of copulation.  In addition to this, obtaining a socially higher-ranking partner becomes an unconscious priority.  Guess what most young men think is unattractive in women?  Intelligence (unless you’re beautiful enough to compensate).  YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY.

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How to spot a scam shark documentary producer

Many aspects of science-ing are not explicitly taught, and scientists become accustomed to mastering the deep end.  While this tactic can make you stronger, there are situations where the deep end is a vulnerable place where nasty critters are very happy to take advantage.

One such area?  How to handle being contacted by “producers.”  In my experience, for every 1 exceptional producer you speak with, you will be contacted by at least 4 scammers.  Scam producers will particularly target naïve early-career scientists, just like white sharks and seal pups.  In light of this week, I’ve put together a guide to aid YOY scientists rising in the ranks of popularity and make the deep end a little safer.  Here are 13 ways to spot scam shark documentary producers, with a few 🚩🚩:

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New achievement milestones for academic life

Overall job satisfaction in academia has been steadily declining for many independent reasons I won’t get into here (see Nature 1 and 2). However, we do need to accept some ownership for this dissatisfaction. Our expectations and goal posts are understandable set very high.  Indeed for many of us, our impossible standards and stubborn determination are the only reasons we got this far, so it can be painful – nigh impossible – for those who are hardwired to overachieve to step back and be happy with the big picture. We need to, because the stakes are as high as health, sanity, and relationships.

This inspired me to develop a new set of milestones to measure our academic careers by. Not only for our sanity, but especially for those younger scientists and students still fighting their way up the ladder.

Here are 12 new milestones of achievement I recommend we measure our career success by:
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Trading blue collars for scarlet robes, my working-class experience of academic life

More people are going to college, graduate school, and obtaining PhDs in STEM fields than ever before (Figure 1), and a growing minority of these PhD candidates are non-traditional or not white affluent males. While we celebrate this change, let us not forget that academia was built by – and for – the “traditional” student. My favourite analogy to explain this type of ingrown privilege is bicycles on USA streets. Bicycles are legally allowed to be on streets, some streets even have extra space just for bicycles, but streets were designed for automobiles. You may be allowed and, in some areas, encouraged to get on the street with your bicycle, but biking a street is going to be intrinsically more difficult than if you were driving a car.

fig1

Like Marconi and La Bamba in a city built on rock and roll, you will inevitably end up in situations that conflict with your way of life. You will not receive a warning before you stumble upon these bumps, and you will be judged by how quickly you accept traditional standards (if you can).  I remember a conversation with traditional tenured and tenure-track scientists discussing proposals for a large grant scheme. One tenure-track scientist was lamenting the process of shopping for editors for his proposal. He talked about it freely, how there were two companies that charged different rates and he was in talks with one but that company felt a conflict of interest that he had worked with another rival editing company. The rest of the traditional scientists nodded in mutual understanding. Finding good, cheap editors to improve your work is hard. My working-class ethos was busy screaming inside my head.  How can hiring someone to edit and improve written works that you will ultimately be rewarded for be so blithely acceptable? You’re not allowed to hire editors for any task throughout your training. You learn how to write from earning disappointing grades (or failing grant applications). You read more, you study written works, you develop a voice, and you try again. The results get better until you are at an appropriate level to move up another notch on the ladder, right? Not for traditionals.

Here are some more bizarre “traditional” customs you should expect if you are biking down the academic street:

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Learn what whale harassment looks like (GIFs)

It’s nearly summer, which means the shores will soon be filled with SUP boards, drones, and self-professed whale whisperers.  This authentic lifestyle is an obnoxious time for marine mammals, and soon your online feeds will be flooded with aerial footage of people “sharing the water” with marine megafauna.  Some of these shots are innocent but an increasing amount are harassment.  Below is a helpful GIF guide to tell the difference.

Not harassment:

not whale harassment

Also not harassment:

not whale harassment

These scenarios happen.  They are rarely documented and totally amazing.

not whale harassment

(c) Dave de Beer, Cape Town

The below GIF explains what whale harassment looks like:

whale harassment

It’s truly that simple.  The next time an amazing 4K aerial shot shows people interacting with whales, ask yourself two things:  1) Is the whale’s head or the tail facing the people?  2) Are the people actively approaching the whale?

If the answers are 1) Tail and 2) Yes, that is harassment.

Remember:  Whales, dolphins, sharks, or anything else in the ocean does not have to interact with you, even if you brought your drone and your Instagram feed is a bit lacking.  It is illegal to harass marine mammals because it is potentially life threatening for both you and them.