by Matthew Norton
The ocean is full of animals who possess incredible strength and who are capable of feats of endurance that we couldn’t hope to match, not without the help of machines. Examples include the awesome punching power of mantis shrimp, the arduous migrations made by sperm whales and the exhausting patience of a saltwater crocodile as it lies in wait below the water’s surface. Though few creatures can match the sheer power and hunting prowess of the sharks.
But even these powerful fish don’t spend all their time eating and making little sharks. Like many animals, they too need their down time and have no interest in burning up their energy reserves without good reason. To that end, sharks generally have a light skeleton, made mostly of cartilage, and a large liver full of oils that are lighter than water. Both of these adaptations make it easier for sharks to stay above the seafloor and out of the deep sea (unless that’s where they belong). Their skin is also covered in tiny little teeth (dermal denticles) which makes the animal more streamlined and able to swim faster.
Some sharks have gone even further in their evolution, fine tuning their biology so that they exert as little effort as possible. Sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus) are a great example, enhancing their buoyancy by swallowing air and holding it in their stomach. This trick allows them to hover in the water, barely moving until there is something good to eat, or they feel like stretching their fins a little.
Other species, such as the nurse shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum), settle down on the seafloor for extended rest stops. During this time, they use powerful muscles in their mouth to manually pump water through their gills so they can breathe. Should the shark be covered in sand, they also have openings just behind the eyes (called spiracles) through which they can draw in water.
For many sharks, a nap on the ground isn’t an option. They have to keep swimming to keep ramming water through their gills, otherwise they will drown. But these species can still sort of sleep by turning off one side of their brain while the other side keeps the body moving and an eye out for danger and food.
But are any of these sharks really sleeping? Or are they just in a state of quiet wakefulness? Truth be told, we’ll probably know since the only first hand experience we have of being asleep is as human beings. Assuming that sharks sleep like we do is a flawed approach at best, as is projecting any of our thoughts and experiences onto another species, a concept known as anthropomorphisation. Nonetheless, it can help to make science more widely accessible and encourage empathy with the natural world, so long as we don’t take it too far.
From a human perspective
Whether asleep, or quietly awake, a resting shark is still a shark and they should be approached with caution and respect. Even when docile, nurse sharks have been known to retaliate against divers and snorkelers who invade their personal space. Sand tigers have also occasionally clashed with humans over a tasty fish, despite their normally sluggish behaviour.
But as large and powerful as sharks are, researchers need to get close to them, sometimes uncomfortably close, to get the data needed for wildlife management and conservation efforts. Such data is also in pretty high demand since a large number of shark species are still listed as ‘Data Deficient’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Meaning we don’t have enough information to really know if they are at risk, never mind what they might be at risk from.
There are non-invasive methods we can use to study the lives of sharks with little to no interference. These include underwater censuses, baited cameras and environmental DNA samples, all of which can be used to estimate how many of each shark species there are in a given area. Carefully planned experiments in the wild can also reveal how sharks would behave in a given situation more accurately compared to testing their responses in an unnatural setting.
But by capturing live sharks (hopefully temporarily) we can also measure their size, determine their gender and identify the species with greater accuracy. A quick glance might not always be enough to tell apart two or more similar looking species (see image above).
Having the shark in brief custody also offers the chance for more intimate measurements through blood and tissue samples. Such samples can reveal the concentrations of hormones and heavy metal pollutants in the shark’s body, the latter of which sharks are particularly vulnerable to since they can accumulate such toxins from their prey. Admittedly, we could take more samples from the insides of dead sharks, but non-lethal samples from living specimens can still indicate what toxins they have throughout their entire body. With the added bonus of not having to wait for a corpse to wash up, or relying on being able to get there while sampling is still viable.
Captured sharks can also be fixed with tags, usually on, or around the dorsal fin, so that their movements can be tracked post-release. It’s a method that has been used on sharks for nearly a century (although fish in general have been tagged for much, much longer), although these days sharks are often fixed with satellite tags that ‘ping’ their location every time they surface. As more and more sharks are tagged, the hope is that we can identify their migration routes and seasonal hotspots, particularly for endangered and elusive species, and then protect those areas as needed.
But for all the information they give us, the experience of being tagged and/or having samples taken from them is never going to be a pleasant one for the sharks. The best we can do is to carry on developing new techniques that minimise the stress and trauma inflicted on these animals.
Fast capture techniques, such as snagging sharks by the tail, have already been tested as alternatives to more conventional techniques, such as netting and angling. But a better approach, certainly from an animal welfare perspective, would be to avoid taking sharks out of the water at all. Dart tags, attached to the end of a pole, or the bolt of a speargun, are already being used. As are biopsy probes for extracting tissue samples, both underwater and from the side of a boat, before immediately preserving them for later analysis.
With all the technical challenges and ethical considerations around shark research, a top priority should be getting the very most of each set of data we get from each shark. An aim that can only be realistically achieved through collaborations between individuals and organisations from different professions and countries. The Cooperative Shark Tagging Program (CSTP) is a great example since it brings together anglers, commercial fisheries and scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Since its inception in 1962, the program has tagged over 295,000 sharks from 33 species.
I doubt that such a monumental feat could have been achieved without the thousands of volunteers who have contributed to this program. A true testament to what citizen science can achieve.
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All other images are public domain and do not require attribution