Fun Science FRIEDay – The Emperor of all Maladies

The Emperor of all Maladies is how Siddhartha Mukherjee, an Indian-born American physician and oncologist, aptly described cancer. Cancer, this scourge of mankind going back as far as 4,600 years ago when it was identified by the Egyptian physician Imhotep (the first in recorded history). Cancer takes one of the most successful traits of complex eukaryotes, cell division, and weaponizes it in unchecked cellular growth; some even consider cancer to be a more evolved form of cell division. This ailment has plagued humanity, and baffled physicians for centuries as they attempt to tackle the seemingly impossible, discover a cure for cancer.

Scanning electron micrograph of a human T cell. (NIAID/Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
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Shark Week 2019 reviews and thoughts

I wasn’t able to watch live this year, but I DVR-ed all 18 specials and watched them eventually! Here are my reviews, ratings, and thoughts. I did not watch the feature-length movie, which they claim is the first fictional entertainment content they’ve ever produced… causing me to stare in megalodon. Overall, this was not a strong year for science, facts, or diversity (of either sharks or shark researchers).

As a reminder, I grade on the following aspects of a show: is there actual science or natural history educational content / is there made up nonsense, are actual credentialed experts with relevant expertise featured or are they self-proclaimed “shark experts” who say wrong nonsense all the time, what species are featured (with bonus points for species we rarely or never see), and do they feature diverse experts or just the same white men (reminder: my field is more than 50% women)? It’s not a perfect rubric, but it’s better than this actual system for ranking shark news introduced this year in “sharks gone wild 2:”

Rankings appear in no particular order, if you care about the order the shows actually aired in please see this Discovery press release.

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10 sharks that mattered in the 2010’s

Just when you thought it was safe to read another decade-in-review listicle…

You can buy this on a tshirt

As the 2010’s come to an end, it’s a time to reflect on the often-problematic decade that was as we plan for a hopeful future. I am a sucker for year-in-review and decade-in-review listicles, and was devastated to learn that no one had yet written a decade-in-review listicle for sharks! Please enjoy my official, scientific list of the most important science, conservation, and pop culture sharks from the past decade.

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Emerging technologies for exploration and independent monitoring of seafloor extraction in Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at the 2019 Minerals, Materials, and Society Symposium at the University of Delaware in August, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I want to change tracks for a bit and scan the horizon to think about what the future of exploration and monitoring in the high seas might look like because ocean and conservation technology is in the midst of an evolutionary shift in who has access to the tools necessary to observe the deep ocean.

This is the Area. Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction, International Waters, the High Seas, the Outlaw Ocean. It’s the portion of the ocean that falls outside of national EEZs and is held in trust by the UN under the Convention on the Law of the Sea as the Common Heritage of Humankind. It covers 64% of the ocean and nearly half of the total surface of the Earth. It’s also the region in which most major deep-sea mining ventures intend to operate.

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Bot meets Whale: making friends in the ocean; or how I learned to stop worrying and mitigate harmful interactions between recreational ROVs and marine mammals.

An example of a microROV system. From Thaler et al. (2019)

Today, there are more robots exploring the ocean than ever before. From autonomous ocean-crossing gliders to massive industrial remotely operated vehicles to new tools for science and exploration that open new windows into the abyss, underwater robots are giving people a change to experience the ocean like never before. The fastest growing sector of this new robotic frontier? Small, recreational, observation class ROVs.

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A global assessment of biodiversity and research effort at active Seafloor Massive Sulphides: Transcript from my talk at the International Seabed Authority.

[The following is a transcript from a talk I gave at a side event during Part II of the 25th Session of the International Seabed Authority in July, 2019. It has been lightly edited for clarity.]

I want to change gears this afternoon and talk about a very different kind of mining. For the last two years, Diva and I have been engaged in a data mining project to discover what we can learn and what we still need to learn about biodiversity at hydrothermal vents from the 40-year history of ocean exploration in the deep sea.

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What we’ve missed in the Abyss: Mining 40 years of cruise reports for biodiversity and research effort data from deep-sea hydrothermal vents.

“When the RV Knorr set sail for the Galapagos Rift in 1977, the geologists aboard eagerly anticipated observing a deep-sea hydrothermal vent field for the first time. What they did not expect to find was life—abundant and unlike anything ever seen before. A series of dives aboard the HOV Alvin during that expedition revealed not only deep-sea hydrothermal vents but fields of clams and the towering, bright red tubeworms that would become icons of the deep sea. So unexpected was the discovery of these vibrant ecosystems that the ship carried no biological preservatives. The first specimens from the vent field that would soon be named “Garden of Eden” were fixed in vodka from the scientists’ private reserves.”

Thaler and Amon 2019

In the forty years since that first discovery, hundreds of research expedition ventured into the deep oceans to study and understand the ecology of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. In doing so, they discovered thousands of new species, unraveled the secrets of chemosynthesis, and fundamentally altered our understanding of what it means to be alive on this planet. Now, as deep-sea mining crawls slowly towards production, we must transform those discoveries into conservation and management principles to safeguard the diversity and resilience of life in the deep sea.

Biodiversity of hydrothermal vents from around the world. Top: Indian Ocean, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Juan de Fuca Ridge. Bottom: East Pacific Rise, Southwest Pacific, Southern Ocean. Photo credits (top left to bottom right): University of Southampton; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Ocean Networks Canada; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Nautilus Minerals; University of Southampton.
Biodiversity of hydrothermal vents from around the world. Top: Indian Ocean, Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Juan de Fuca Ridge. Bottom: East Pacific Rise, Southwest Pacific, Southern Ocean. Photo credits (top left to bottom right): University of Southampton; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Ocean Networks Canada; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; Nautilus Minerals; University of Southampton.

Though research at hydrothermal vents looms large in the disciplines of deep-sea science, relative to almost any terrestrial system, they are practically unexplored. Over the last 2 years, Drs. Andrew Thaler and Diva Amon have poured through every available cruise report that made a biological observation at the deep-sea hydrothermal vent to assess how disproportionate research effort shapes or perception of hydrothermal vent ecosystems and impacts how we make management decisions in the wake of a new form of anthropogenic disturbance.

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Five Questions with Irene Kingma

I spent last week in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019.

Expedition leaders Irene Kingma (left) and Dr. Paddy Walker (right) decked out in the official Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 gear.

I previously wrote about some of the goals of the expedition, and our first day out on the water tagging small Caribbean reef and silky sharks.  I also interviewed several of the expedition participants on their views on sharks and shark conservation. Yesterday I posted my interview with Tadzio Bervoets. Today, I’m posting my interview with expedition lead Irene Kingma.

I first met Irene in 2014 when she invited me to give a keynote speech at the European Elasmobranch Association and have kept in touch with her through the years, mostly through Twitter.  Irene has been working in shark conservation for 15 years, both in Europe and the Caribbean.  She runs the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, which she founded together with Dr. Paddy Walker in 2010.

From 2015 to 2018 she worked as the Netherlands project lead in the Save our Sharks project of the Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance. This project aimed to improve all aspects of shark protection in the Dutch Caribbean through legislation, education, management, and science.  The project has ended but the Save our Sharks brand is still used for shark science and conservation work in the islands. 

Irene and Dr. James Thorburn prepare the European Space Agency tiger shark satellite tags for deployment.

I sat down with Irene and asked her five questions:

Bucky: What is your role on this expedition?

Irene: I am the expedition leader.  I’m in charge of making sure everyone knows where they have to be and what they need to do. I do this together with Dr. Walker, who took on the lead role after I left the expedition a few days before the official end. Paddy and I founded the Dutch Elasmobranch Society together in 2010, a science-based NGO dedicated to the management and protection of elasmobranchs in the Dutch Kingdom.

Bucky: How does the work you do contribute to global efforts to protect sharks?

Irene: My main job is helping policy makers to take the right decision on shark and fisheries management. For example, here in the Dutch Caribbean the Dutch Elasmobranch Society is the main adviser to the Dutch government on shark management and the measures needed to make the Yarari Shark Sanctuary a success.  Together with local partners we wrote the proposals to get several sharks and ray species listed on the SPAW protocol, the only cross border legal protection instrument for the Caribbean region.

The expedition crew works up and tags a tiger shark.

Bucky: Why are sharks important to you?

Irene: My background is in ecology, so when I think of heathy oceans that should include all parts of the ecosystem. Sharks are a really good indicator of ecosystem wellbeing; to be able to sustain healthy, diverse shark and ray populations all elements of the system need be to in good shape. We need to protect everything from the corals and to whale sharks.

Bucky: How are we going to save the world’s sharks?

Irene:   I am a firm believer in a holistic approach to management. Putting a species on a list like CITES, CMS, SPAW is an important first step. But you also need to have sensible implementation on the ground linked to effective control and enforcement. Plus, to ensure you get buy in by the people who are affected or have to carry out the protective work you need to communicate on what you want to achieve and why throughout the chain. And lastly all needs to be grounded in sound science to ensure what you do actually makes a difference in the water and for sharks. My mantra is we need to get the science we need to deliver the policy we want.  

Bucky: What advice would you give to young scientists interested in a conservation careers?

Irene: Dream big! Here I am, a girl from Amsterdam who started out as a malacologist (snail specialist) leading an expedition to one of the most interesting places in the world to start up research projects which will help us protect sharks.  Somebody pinch me! There’s no clear path that led me here, the only clear thread I see is that I tend not to take the safe option when it comes to career choices and I never gave up. 

The Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 runs from July 15-25. You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.

Five Questions With Tadzio Bervoets

I spent last week in Saba in the Dutch Caribbean with the Dutch Elasmobranch Society, St. Maarten Nature Foundation, and the Saba Conservation Foundation serving as a research assistant to an international team of shark scientists participating in the Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019. I previously wrote about some of the goals of the expedition, and our first day out on the water tagging small Caribbean reef and silky sharks.

Tadzio giving us the morning briefing before Thursday’s tagging.

I was able to reconnect with my good friend, Tadzio Bervoets. Tadzio was born and raised on the island of Sint Maarten and has worked in conservation for ten years, first as the MPA manager for the island of St. Eustatius and and today as the director of the St. Maarten Nature Foundation. In his role as director he helped to establish the Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area and was the lead for the Dutch Caribbean Save Our Shark Project .

He led the team at the Nature Foundation to push through conservation measures for all elasmobranchs, establishing a moratorium on shark fishing in 2011 and designating a shark sanctuary in 2016.

I sat down with Tadzio and asked him five questions.

Bucky: What is your role on this expedition?

Tadzio: I am the lead for the tagging exercise, focused on temporarily catching large tiger sharks so that the necessary science can be gathered from them, including the application of the new prototype European Space Agency tags.

Tadzio securing a tiger shark on our first day of tagging.

Bucky: How does the work you do contribute to global efforts to protect sharks?

Tadzio: This expedition is a direct spin-off of the DCNA Save our Shark Project which was a three-year, multi-island regional shark conservation project in which we supported shark conservation activities on all six islands of the Dutch Caribbean: Sint Maarten, Saba, St. Eustatius, Bonaire, Curacao, and Aruba. The project was centered not only on scientific research and establishing monitoring programs for the species, but also focused on policy changes concerning shark conservation as well as educational and outreach components informing us islanders on the importance of sharks to our ocean ecosystem. Based on all of these components sharks have received local protection through the establishment of the Yarari Shark Sanctuary for Bonaire, Saba and St. Eustatius, as well as pushing through regional conservation measures using the Specially Protected Areas and Wildlife Protocols of the Cartagena Convention for the Protection of Marine Biodiversity in the Caribbean Sea.

Bucky: Why are sharks important to you?

Tadzio: I was one of those kids obsessed with sharks and dinosaurs growing up. I soon realized that dinosaurs were quite dead, but sharks are some of the most majestic yet misunderstood creatures on earth. My childhood obsession set me along the path of becoming a marine conservationist and helped me focuss on my work to establish MPAs on St. Maarten as well as the Yarari Sanctuary and shark sanctuaries in the Dutch Caribbean.

Bucky: How are we going to save the world’s sharks?

You: By continuing fighting the good fight! Although focusing on science and policy is critical and important, the most important aspect is changing people’s perception of sharks and how important they are to the Caribbean Sea and by extension to our way of life as Caribbean People.

Bucky: What advice would you give to young islanders interested in conservation careers?

Tadzio: There is a great need for the work to be done even though you may be told otherwise. It is also important that us Caribbean people are front and center in tackling the conservation issues that we face, instead of relying on foreign researchers who may not have the affinity and connection with our own natural areas. If you are interested keep and cultivate that interest, don’t get discouraged by the artificial appearance of a lack of work in the field as this is far from the truth. Don’t be afraid to travel and intern and get experience, but please come back to our beautiful Caribbean to make sure that it remains exactly that, beautiful.

The Save Our Sharks Expedition 2019 runs from July 15-25. You can also follow the expedition on social media using the hashtag #SabaShark2019, or by following the Save Our Sharks social media accounts on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.