Other than a certain week in August whose name we shall not speak here, 2013 was a great year for both shark science and the communication of that shark science. There were many important and fascinating discoveries, and many of the world’s top media outlets covered them. Presented here is a list of 13 amazing scientific discoveries made in 2013, in no particular ranking order. To make the list, research must have been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal in 2013, and someone else other than me must have also thought it was awesome (i.e. it received mainstream media or blog coverage). In the interest of objectivity, I did not include any papers that I or my lab were directly involved with. Whenever possible, I’ve linked to an accessible version of the paper.
1) A two-headed bull shark!
From Wagner et al. 2013
Citation: Wagner, CM, Rice, PH, and Pease, AP 2013. First record of dicephalia in a bull shark Carcharhinus leucas foetus from the Gulf of Mexico. Journal of Fish Biology 82: 1419-1422.
Brief description: Researchers presented the first case of a bull shark embryo with 2 heads (the mother was caught by a Florida fishermen). In response to the most common question I received about this study, no, this animal would not have survived to adulthood. While this is a cool discovery, the broader significance is somewhat minimal. As I told science writer Douglas Main in an interview about a similar study, “There have been a number of reports of deformed shark and ray embryos in recent years— two heads, one eye, etc. There’s no evidence to suggest these defects represent a new phenomenon or that they are harmful to shark populations as a whole.”
Media coverage highlights: A figure from this study was named one of the coolest science photos of the year by the International Science Times. It was also covered by National Geographic, the Guardian, and TIME magazine. Read More
Kristine Stump is a PhD candidate in Marine Biology and Fisheries at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS). Her dissertation focuses on the effects of anthropogenic nursery habitat loss on juvenile lemon sharks in Bimini, Bahamas. She was the Principal Investigator of the Bimini Biological Field Station (BBFS, or Sharklab) from 2008 – 2011 while collecting field data for her degree and has been heavily involved in the process of establishing a Marine Protected Area in Bimini. Kristine has an M.A. in Marine Policy from RSMAS, and prior to entering the doctoral program, she spent five years working in Washington, DC at Ocean.US – the National Office for Integrated and Sustained Ocean Observations (now the NOAA IOOS Program). In addition, she has worked for the Census of Marine Life program office at the Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, DC.
There is an apex predator roaming the seas. For hundreds of thousands of years, this beast has hunted in the waters of the world’s oceans. Relentless is it in its search along the shorelines for that which satisfies its primal urges. Its numbers ever on the rise, the destruction in its path knows no bounds. And now, in 2012, it wants to dominate the sea more than ever before: it wants glass-bottom bungalows. It needs yacht dockage at its vacation home. It craves manicured fairways. IT MUST HAVE AN INFINITY POOL!
If you haven’t already guessed, the apex predator here is man. Throughout history, the environment has shaped man, but now more than ever, man is shaping the environment. In the current era of environmental awareness, however, we have learned that there are limits to the anthropogenic changes ecosystems can withstand while still maintaining ecosystem function. Luckily, we have learned to implement mitigation strategies to offset, to some degree, the negative effects of human expansion.
Last week, volunteers monitoring a sea turtle nesting beach on Virginia Key came across a beached lemon shark. They called in scientists from the University of Miami’s RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation program, including myself . Dunlap program director Dr. Neil Hammerschlag decided to film the necropsy to use as an online teaching tool. The end result, edited together by Dunlap program multimedia specialist Christine Shepard, is below. Check it out to learn about the internal anatomy of a shark, as well as the process that scientists use to determine causes of death in marine organisms. If you have any questions about the process or about the animal, please leave them as comments below.
Shark Research with RJD: necropsy on mysteriously beached lemon shark from R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation on Vimeo.
Earlier this month, a video of fishermen shooting a rifle at sharks appeared on YouTube and caused quite a stir. The video has since been removed, but not before shark conservation activists made copies (warning: the videos are extremely graphic and have inappropriate language). Apparently some computers can access the site with the videos and others can’t, if you can’t access the site and want a copy of the videos just let me know. All images in this post are screenshots from the video.