Urban Shark Week at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science

By Aeja Pinto

The University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) is engaging in fascinating research concerning local shark populations. Dr. Neil Hammerschlag and his students are conducting extensive research on shark biology, ecosystems, conservation, and shark movement. I had a conversation with Shannon Moorhead, a graduate student in UM’s Shark Research and Conservation (SRC) lab. She is researching the physical and nutritional requirements of nurse sharks both in and out of urban ecosystems. We discussed the importance of local Miami research, as well as what UM’s shark tagging seeks to accomplish. Moorhead said, “Each graduate student has their own project, and Dr. Hammerschlag usually has several studies going on at once. Our primary research focuses on a few things; one of the major things we study is shark movement.”  Student research varies from how sharks react to climate change, bacteria on shark skin and how it infects their wounds, shark immunology, to stress physiology of sharks, etc.

We discussed an interesting research project called Urban Sharks, which looks at how the city of Miami is affecting local sharks and their populations. Moorhead said, “Large urban areas can be detrimental to many animals, but they can also become beneficial if the animals adapt to take advantage of the city.” The objectives of this project include 5 steps: “1. Determine shark distribution, habitat use and residency patterns of sharks across a gradient of habitats from highly altered/developed to relatively pristine. 2. Examine shark use of a highly developed and disturbed urban water system in South Florida. 3. Assess the immune status and condition of sharks in urbanized versus non urbanized areas. 4. Evaluate shark diet and nutrition of across a gradient of habitats from highly altered/developed to relatively pristine. 5. Assess reproductive status of sharks in urbanized versus pristine areas.” This project seeks to understand a city’s effect on shark populations while focusing on Miami and how our urban landscape shapes the lives and habitats of local sharks.

So, what is the goal of shark tagging? “The ultimate goal of shark tagging is to gather data on these fascinating animals and to determine the abundance and distribution of shark species,” says Moorhead. This is done by taking a blood and tissue sample, conducting a reflex test, measuring the shark's length, and finally the shark is given an ID tag. If a shark is later captured by a local fisher, the tag contains a number to contact the SRC lab so they can provide researchers with their location and any additional data regarding the shark in question. In addition, SRC participates in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) cooperative tagging mission, and any fisher can contact NOAA for the specific tags needed to tag local shark populations themselves. And anyone over ten years of age can participate in ‘citizen science’ alongside UM researchers to tag local sharks and provide the shark lab with data. I was fascinated to learn the many ways in which the public can get involved.

In conclusion, local research is important, yet many of us cannot name one local research project because these amazing projects are not being publicized. The March for Science Miami team seeks to promote support for science within the community, and we urge the public to stay informed and get involved. Hammerschlag and his team seek to involve the community by encouraging the public (ten years of age and older) to join them on their shark tagging trips. 

If interested in participating: http://sharkresearch.rsmas.miami.edu/participate/citizen-science-public-expeditions

Additional information about UM’s shark research at: http://sharkresearch.rsmas.miami.edu/about and http://sharkresearch.rsmas.miami.edu/research

Moorhead and I hope you will get involved, and that you will seek to understand more about the fascinating shark populations that inhabit our very own waters. Happy shark tagging.