13 amazing things scientists discovered about sharks in 2013

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

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

Was CITES COP16 a game-changer for online outreach at wildlife management meetings?

davesquareCITES logo

As 16th Conference of the Parties of the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES COP16, pronounced sight-eze) comes to a close, I’d like to reflect on something that made this meeting unlike almost any other wildlife conservation and management meeting in history. Yes, history was made as delegates voted to list commercially exploited shark species for the first time, and history was made when manta rays became the first shark or ray species  to be listed under CITES the first time they were proposed, and that’s all fantastic news. However, what I believe made CITES COP16 a game-changer for wildlife conservation and management was the large-scale inclusion of online outreach by both attendees and organizers. For the first time ever, interested members of the public from all over the world could follow along (and to some degree, participate) in real time.

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Breaking news: CITES protections for hammerheads, manta rays, and oceanic whitetips proposed

A newly-released list of proposed amendments  for the upcoming CITES Conference of the Parties includes proposals to protect ten species of sharks and rays, a record-breaking number. These include three species of hammerheads, oceanic whitetip sharks, porbeagle sharks, three species of freshwater stingray, and both species of manta ray.

In total, 37 countries are involved in the proposed amendments. As expected, the United States is a co-sponsor of the oceanic whitetip measure. Additional noteworthy participants include major shark fishing nations like Mexico (co-sponsoring the hammerhead proposal) and the European Union (co-sponsoring the hammerhead and leading the porbeagle proposals).

“International trade is a major driver for shark fisheries around the world, and yet controls on this exploitation are woefully insufficient,” said Sonja Fordham, President of Shark Advocates International. “We are grateful for continued U.S. leadership in addressing international shark trade, and welcome this unprecedented number of proposals to safeguard these vulnerable species under CITES.”

Threats to these animals are diverse and include directed catch for both fins and meat, bycatch, alternative medicine (gill rakers), and even the aquarium trade. Each of the freshwater stingray species are considered Data Deficient by the IUCN Red List, scalloped and great hammerheads are considered Endangered, and the other species are Vulnerable.

Species of elasmobranchs currently protected by CITES include the great white shark, whale shark, basking shark, and all species of sawfish. Porbeagles, oceanic whitetips, and hammerheads were proposed for CITES protections in 2010, but the measures failed.

Each of these proposals aims to list a species under CITES Appendix II, which requires that any international export of these species be certified as sustainable (including the issuing of permits). The discussion will take place next March at the 16th CITES Conference of the Parties in Bangkok, Thailand.