Discovery of a Great Hammerhead Nursery

Happy Shark Week (if you celebrate), and I’m so excited to share our newly published open access paper about our research on juvenile great hammerheads (Sphyrna mokarran) with you! (It’s been hard to keep this one to ourselves).

Great hammerheads are an iconic shark species which have undergone significant population declines globally. In 2019, they were assessed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, which reported overfishing as the greatest threat to their survival. Great hammerheads are known to make incredible long-range migrations and cross state and international boundaries, making them challenging to protect as adults. Little is known about where they are born or where they spend their early years of their life, although there have been scattered reports of juveniles from the Gulf of Mexico, the Florida Keys, and one report from Georgia.

Identifying habitats that are important to juvenile sharks matters because young sharks are often the most vulnerable individuals in a population, and their survival is vital to the future of their species. Many juvenile sharks spend time in “nursery areas”—places where they are less likely to be eaten by predators, or where food resources are abundant. They then expand their ranges as they age, covering more distance as they grow larger. Identifying nurseries has long been a conservation priority for managers and scientists. After several years of research, our team has collected the first scientific evidence of a nursery area for great hammerhead sharks on the Atlantic coast of the United States—within sight of the skyline of Miami, Florida.

There’s a three-part established test for an area to be identified as a shark nursery: 1) Juvenile sharks are more commonly encountered in that habitat than elsewhere; 2) they remain in the area for extended periods; and 3) The area is used repeatedly over years. Our results demonstrate that this area definitely meets two of these criteria, with preliminary evidence that it also meets the third. We’ve found the same habitat may be a nursery area for several other shark species too, including scalloped hammerheads, another Critically Endangered species!

Although great and scalloped hammerheads are protected in Florida waters and must be released if caught, hammerhead sharks often die or suffer serious harm from capture stress. Some of these juvenile individuals were caught with hooks from prior encounters with recreational anglers still embedded in their jaws. We hope learning more about this nursery can help us reduce threats to and better protect these small sharks. We can’t wait to share further updates as new results come in from the project’s telemetry expansion, supported by the Nature Trust of the Americas and a National Geographic Explorer Grant.

Our short scientific paper documenting this work is available open access through the journal Conservation Science and Practice, you can visit the project website here, or I hope you will watch the incredible video (also embedded at the top of the post).

Getting a handle on workworking chemicals, or sometimes we all need to vent.

This is Part 2 of Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking.


Walk into any woodshop and you find a shelf full of chemicals. Solvents, paints, varnishes, lacquers, oils, glues, and a host of other exotic and not so exotic solutions are a staple of the craft. These compounds are used to join, clean, prepare, and finish most woodworking projects, as well as maintain your tools. Do any amount of woodworking, and you’ll almost certainly accumulate a shelf of assorted, half-used, chemicals of your own. 

What’s almost certainly not present in most woodshops, especially hobbyist woodshops, are the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for these chemicals. MSDSs tell you everything you could possibly want to know about the hazards associated with commercial chemical compounds. For many common woodworking products, the MSDSs are pretty intense. 

I’ll be completely honest here. I have never had MSDSs in my workshop. It was only while doing the background research for this article that I realized I needed to pay more attention to the assorted chemicals involved in the craft, and started compiling all the potential hazards. I suspect that the vast majority of hobbyist woodworkers are the same. 

Woodworking chemicals contain irritants, release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), are cut with heavy metals, and are often just plastic. They can be bad for your skin, bad for your lungs, and bad for your brain. When produced, disposed of, accidentally discharged, or as they break down through regular wear, they can release harmful compounds into the environment. If not disposed of correctly, some of these products will spontaneously burst into flames.

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A shed with solar panels

I turned my woodshop into a personal solar farm.

This is Part 1 of Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking.


For almost a decade, I’ve dreamed of building an off-grid solar system to power my woodworking, provide reliable back-up power for my home, and reduce the number of 2-stroke engines in my life. This was finally the year where I had the time and resources to do it. 

My workshop isn’t big. The 12-foot by 16-foot shed houses not just my tools and workbenches, but also all our yard and gardening supplies, storage for assorted seasonal gear and decorations, and a pile of robot parts. So I needed a compact system that still delivered the amps. 

Building a small off-grid solar system is simpler than you might think. Building a small off-grid solar system that can run power tools is a bit more complicated. 

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Built to Last: A Reflection on Environmentally Conscientious Woodworking

I make things. I make weird electronic things. I make scientific instrument things. And I make things out of wood. I make a lot of things out of wood

When I’m not working on marine conservation technology, educational programming, or high seas policy, I’m usually out back in the woodshop, building furniture, functional art, and other woodcrafts. This probably isn’t a surprise. For the last eleven years, one of the most popular articles at Southern Fried Science has been How to build a canoe from scratch on a graduate student stipend

Every few years, I turn an analytical eye on my hobbies, assessing the lifecycle of the materials I use, the sources of inefficiency, and, most importantly, how the practice of the craft aligns with or deviates from my personal environmental ethic. In other words, I do a sustainability audit on my recreational activities. For the last year, I’ve focused on understanding and improving the environmental impacts of my woodworking.

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Saving sea turtles in Dominica with a conservation-first Rum Distillery

In the hours before dawn on one mid-October morning, I climbed into the jumpseat of a C-131 cargo plane, and began a long, complicated journey to the island of Dominica. It was 2017 and Hurricane Maria had cut a swath of destruction across much of the Caribbean, but it was Dominica that first bore the full force of the storm as it roared into the Americas.

When I began working with Jake Levenson (Oceans Forward) early the year before, we were developing a marine conservation and robotics program to bring to students on the Island, but the storm changed everything. Though my first trip to Dominica was far different from what we had planned, it was the beginning of a long partnership with Levenson, the Dominica Sea Turtle Conservation Organization, and friends and colleagues from Dominica and around the world committed to marine conservation and answering the big question: can a small island create a model for financially sustainable marine conservation that is resilient to both the changing climate and the ever-shifting winds of ecotourism?

From that question, and over many conversations with stakeholders, experts, funders, and community leaders, the Rosalie Conservation Center–a center of learning and research as well as a fish hatchery and a rum distillery–was born.

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What Johnny Mnemonic got right about 2021: we keep trying to build housing out of old shipping containers.

Internet 2021 from Johnny Mnemonic

From a global pandemic to information overload to out-of-control drug prices, 1995’s Johnny Mnemonic made a lot of bold predictions about 2021 that landed a bit too hard. Among the hits that landed hardest? The rise of containerized housing and a chaotic kludge of weird construction welded together in a way that doesn’t exactly scream stability and permanence.

The year is 2021. Can we put to rest the idea that a shipping container home is anything but an aesthetic choice?

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Meet the newest Southern Fried Science contributor, Dr. Catherine Macdonald

Hello, world of Southern Fried Science.

The Field School team restrains a blacktip shark for a quick work-up during a female-scientist-led trip with the amazing non-profit Terranaut Club.

I’m Catherine—if we’re being official about it, Dr. Catherine Macdonald—and I’m the newest contributing writer around here. Before we get into science, I thought it might be helpful to get better acquainted.  

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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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Egosystem management. Or how tantrums and unprofessional behavior are hindering conservation

In helping to organize several meetings and events for conservation groups, I’ve frequently encountered conservation professionals loudly declaiming “Don’t you know who I am!” and expecting special treatment. Recently I got an email from someone whose abstract was rejected by a conference committee I was assisting, in which they had quite a tantrum. There were lots of exclamation marks and capital letters saying that it was unfair they were rejected and they will never ever go again to any meetings by this professional society and will resign their membership. I was asked by someone outside the conservation field whether it was usual that we get such childish and temperamental responses to rejections. Sadly we often do – whether it be rejections for journals, jobs or conference presentations.

However, I also told that person that anyone who’s been an academic for a while gets used to being rejected. Few papers get accepted at first submission, for example. So most conservation professionals take it in their stride. Moreover, anyone who is in the conservation field should really get used to difficulties and failures, as these are all too frequently components of the job. A conservation biologist is not going to last long if they go berserk at the least slight or hard knock or have a fragile ego. Conservation is often about conflict, and trying to resolve this conflict through reasoned argument, understanding and diplomacy. You often get knocked down, but to quote Chumbawumba, you just have to “get up again”.

As a result, one could reach the conclusion that someone who is really childish, temperamental, rude etc. should not last long in real-world conservation. Sadly, such tantrum-throwing individuals may last longer, or even thrive, in academia, but that’s another story. However, that person will be a horror for colleagues in the field. So for the case above, resigning from a society or refusing to go to conservation meetings is like natural selection, weeding the weak and unfit from the gene pool. If they are going to ditch going to premiere meetings to learn the latest cutting-edge conservation and science over a run-of-the-mill abstract rejection, then it’s their loss and frankly our gain…

However, despite the potential forces of natural selection, inflated – yet fragile – egomaniacal bloviates are still all too common in the conservation world. There are several major marine conservation initiatives that foundered because, for example, coalitions would not let certain organizations have top billing in materials, and the thwarted organizations walked away, taking their essential funding with them. Others would not cooperate with conservation academics from a competing institution, and held back essential information and resources, causing the project to collapse. Frequently managing a conservation project is more about managing the egos of collaborators, or the egos of their organisations, rather than managing the actual project itself. This type of “human resources” management is, unfortunately, a skill in which few conservation professionals receive any training. Too frequently these days, in order to achieve conservation success, you have to first manage the ego-system, before finally getting down to efforts to restore the eco-system.

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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