Rumors of the lesser electric ray’s demise have been greatly exaggerated

A lesser electric ray. Photo credit: Brandi Noble, NOAA Fisheries Service

The lesser electric raya small sand-dwelling ray that lives from North Carolina to Brazil, has been considered one of the most endangered marine fish on Earth. A 2005 paper reported that 98% of these rays had been wiped out, a decline attributed to shrimp trawling bycatch. This paper resulted in these animals getting classified as IUCN Red List “Critically Endangered,” the highest risk category for any species that is still found in the wild.

A new paper published today in the journal Endangered Species Research shows that these rays are in much better shape than previously believed. “There is no evidence of a decline in the relative abundance of lesser electric rays,” said Dr. John Carlson, a NOAA Fisheries Service Research Biologist and lead author of the new paper.

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Bonnethead sharks, one of the smallest hammerheads, may actually be more than one species

Bonnethead sharks, one of the smallest members of the hammerhead shark family Sphyrnidae, have a special place in my heart. For many years, the avatar I used for science communication efforts, including posts on this blog, was a picture of me with a bonnethead.

Remember this avatar? That’s a bonnethead (on the left).

These sharks, which can grow up to about 5 feet long, are found throughout North, Central, and South America. However, new research by Fields and friends suggests that they may actually be a species complex, not a true species. “A species complex is a group of distinct species that are incorrectly classified as one species because they look very similar to one another,” explained Dr. Demian Chapman, an Associate Professor of Biology at Florida International University and a co-author on this new study. “A great example is the white spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) that was once thought to be one, globally distributed species, but now has been shown to be a group of very similar-looking species, each of which lives in a particular region.”

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Harnessing Synthetic Biology to Fight Ocean Pollution

Plastics, more importantly microplastics, clog our oceans. This phenomena in the ocean has been likened to smog around cities. These plastic particles are dangerous because they can absorb toxins, subsequently be consumed by zooplankton and invertebrates, and bioaccumluate up the food web to fish that are consumed by humans. A study in Nature found that 25 percent of seafood sold contains microplastics! There has been a recent awareness of the unseen harm that exists when plastic pollution in the ocean degrades into microplastics. A report in Environmental Research Letters estimated that “accumulated number of micro plastic particles… ranges from 15 to 51 trillion particles, weighing between 93 and 236 thousand metric tons.” That is cray cray. Despite a better awareness of the impact of microplastics on marine ecology, we still have a poor spatial understanding of microplastics in the ocean. The presence and density of microplastics is determined by trawling the ocean (i.e., researchers go out with a net and physically count the pieces of plastic they pick up). As you can imagine, this is not very effective.

Conceptualization of plastic degrading in the ocean. (Photo credit: Archipelagos Institute)

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37 things I learned about shark ecology and conservation for my dissertation

The fam attending my dissertation defense

The fam attending my dissertation defense

After a little more than 5 years of hard work, I’ve officially completed my Ph.D.! You can read my dissertation (“An Integrative and Interdisciplinary Approach to Shark Conservation: Policy Solutions, Ecosystem Role, and Stakeholder Attitudes”) online here in its entirety.

In case there are some among you who don’t really want to read a 281 page dissertation but are curious about what I found, I’ve prepared this blog post to summarize my key conclusions. (Note: this does not include every conclusion. Some are aggregated together, and some more technical conclusions are omitted for this summary).

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New TV show: Deep Sea Mysteries with Paul Clerkin premieres tonight!

dsc_5896-for-print-twoPaul J. Clerkin is a graduate researcher at the Pacific Shark Research Center of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories in Moss Landing, California. Clerkin specializes in rare and deep-sea chondrichthyans and is focusing on new species descriptions and life histories of poorly understood sharks species. His thesis work is with Dr. David A. Ebert studying sharks encountered during two surveys in the Southern Indian Ocean in 2012 and 2014, a total of 126 days at sea. He has also conducted research for other projects aboard ships in the Bering Sea, South East Atlantic, Philippine Sea, and across the Pacific. He was featured in the “Alien Sharks” series on Shark Week.

This week, Travel Channel is airing a pilot for my new series, Deep Sea Mysteries (“like” our page on Facebook!). In the course of research, I visit extraordinary fishing communities to find and study rare, poorly known and even undescribed species. This show is the first of its kind, different from the Shark Week programs I’ve done in the past. It continues a focus on sharks and other deep-sea animals, but is notably (and pleasantly) more educational. There are more species, more facts, more science, and an emphasis on conservation effort.

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Also, as a travel show, the series combs through the beautiful regions, interesting people and unique stories behind each expedition.

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Fun Science FRIEDay – Visualize the Seafloor

Happy FSF! As some of you may know (and for those who don’t), I study the bottom of the ocean, and I do so primarily using innovative technology to image the seafloor (e.g., Wormcam). The interesting work I’ve conducted has resulted in me having the opportunity to present my work to a larger lay audience, in the form of a TEDx presentation.

(Photo Credit: TEDx Newport)

(Photo Credit: TEDx Newport)

I am giving my TED talk with my good buddy and colleague Steve Sabo.  In our talk, “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Worms”, Steve & I will illustrate the significance of the ocean floor through advancements in underwater camera technology and data visualization, making complex science more accessible for everyone.

Our TED photo (Photo credit: Meg Heriot)

Our TED photo (Photo credit: Meg Heriot)

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Adopt the giant deep-sea isopod, Bathynomus giganteus, as the National Deep-sea Animal of the United States.

Picture a pill bug, roly poly, woodlouse, or doodle bug, an animal found under rocks and logs throughout the United States. Now picture an animal similar to that pill bug, but as big as a cat, crawling across the Gulf of Mexico. That is the giant deep-sea isopod.

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The deep waters of the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone is home to this large, recognizable animal, which can reach almost 2 feet in length. Since their discovery in the late 19th century, giant isopods have captured the public’s imagination, acting as an Ambassador Species for deep-sea ecosystems. Ambassador Species are important for education, exploration, and conservation as they provide a charismatic icon to help introduce people to new and unfamiliar places.

WHEREAS: Read More