It's no secret there are many students out there studying sharks and their relatives. So we are quite excited that we met up with PhD student Ana Barbosa Martins to talk about her research on stingrays! Especially since most of the research we read about/hear is about their more-famous relatives, the sharks. Learn about the stingrays in coral reef flat ecosystems and a bit about Ana in this latest Behind the Fins interview!
The Fins United Initiative: Thanks for meeting with us, Ana. We ask this question to a lot of the scientists we interview-- why study elasmobranchs?
Ana Barbosa Martins: I’ve always felt connected with sharks and rays. They have been my favourite animals since I was a little kid so when I decided to become a biologist, the decision to study elasmobranchs just came naturally.
TFUI: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you are currently doing regarding looking at shark ecology?
ABM: I am currently in the second year of my PhD at James Cook University studying the ecological role of stingrays in coral reef flat ecosystems. The broad aim of my work is to understand the role stingrays play in coral reef flat ecosystems and the importance of these systems to stingrays. Within this broad scope are three specific aims: (1) determine the movement patterns of stingray species, (2) determine habitat use of stingrays in a fringing coral reef system, and (3) investigate the trophic role of stingrays in coral reef habitats (i.e. what they eat). To accomplish this, I am using acoustic and GPS tracking to reveal details of stingray movement patterns and where stingrays spend time, and stable isotope analysis and gastric lavage to better understand stingray trophic ecology.
TFUI: Why is your research important?
ABM: Stingrays are facing a range of threats, with several species at risk. They are increasingly taken by artisanal and industrial fisheries around the world, which have contributed to population declines. Other factors, such as habitat loss and climate change, also negatively affect stingray populations. However, the ability to effectively manage and conserve stingrays have been affected by a lack of knowledge on their biology and ecology. My research is important because it aims to fill some of the essential knowledge gaps in stingray biology, ecology and habitat requirements for survival. I hope that my research will be an important tool to identify areas that support important life stages of stingrays. In addition, I hope to help to improve our understanding of stingray life history, ecosystem function, vulnerability to anthropogenic threats and environmental changes, and also support the development of efficient management and conservation strategies.
TFUI: Why the interest in juvenile stingrays?
ABM: Currently, very little is known about stingray biology and ecology within reef and mangrove habitats. There is even less data for juvenile rays - which can be difficult to detect in these complex habitats. This lack of data hinders our ability to establish efficient management approaches to protect newborns and juveniles.
TFUI: What do you hope to learn?
ABM: I hope to better understand the use of nurseries by stingray species, develop a set a criteria to identify these essential habitats and provide information for efficient management and conservation strategies.
TFUI: What are some difficulties you have had in conducting research?
ABM: Fieldwork is always tricky.
TFUI: Amen to that, haha.
ABM: Although I like to plan every step of my trips, things don’t always work as planned. Weather can change, electronics can fail and, sometimes, even your body demands a break. Adapting to these inconveniences is something that we all have to learn quickly. However, without any doubt, the main difficulty is time management. I get to spend a lot of time in the field, which is amazing, but it’s also very time consuming and physically demanding. So, getting back to the office after weeks in the field it is not an easy transition for me. I always need some time to regain my focus and concentration, and to be able to direct my efforts towards writing and data analysis.
TFUI: Can you explain to TFUI readers what stable isotopes are and why you are collecting them?
ABM: Stable isotopes are natural chemical elements that do not decay radioactively (e.g., hydrogen, carbon). These elements are assimilated in tissues (muscle) and blood based on what an individual feeds on. We can use these elements to trace nutrients through food webs to determine what kinds of food animals are consuming. You are what you eat, right?
ABM: So, I am applying stable isotopes analysis in my research to assess stingray feeding in a coral reef ecosystem. If stable isotope signals differ across my study area, I might be able to provide details on stingray movements and feeding between distinct habitats.
TFUI: Do you speak a different language?
ABM: Portuguese is my first language. I also speak Spanish and I am still learning English. The official language of science is English - which is great because it standardizes and increases the scope of research; but, on the other hand, is a limiting factor for those who do not have the opportunity or cannot afford to learn the language.
TFUI: Has knowing different languages helped you in science in any way?
ABM: Speaking several languages has helped me communicate with researchers from different countries and learn about research being developed in other areas that isn’t being conducted in English.
TFUI: What was some advice you wish you had gotten when you were 20 and starting out this career path?
ABM: I would’ve loved if someone had told me how important it is to work on your confidence. Being a researcher is incredible, but it can be challenging at times. It is important to be aware of your strengths and limitations, prioritize your mental health and keep your confidence up to avoid being overwhelmed by the stress of the deadlines.
TFUI: We totally agree with that advice!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK ANA FOR HER TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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