To study special animals like the sawfish, you need special people! That's where Annmarie Fearing comes in-- her passion for these animals truly shines through her work and outreach. Learn about Annmarie, how she came about studying sawfish, and what a person can learn from these mysterious animals!
The Fins United Initiative: First off, we want to know what got you interested in Chondrichthyans (sharks, skates, rays, chimaeras)?
Annmarie Fearing: What really started my love for Chondrichthyans was when I began volunteering for the Florida Program for Shark Research (FPSR) during my first year at the University of Florida. During my time at FPSR I came to realize how little the public knows about Chondrichthyans, which leads to many people being absolutely terrified of them. I think once you work with any species of shark, skate, ray, or chimaera you come to understand how misjudged and wonderfully bizarre they are; I was hooked!
TFUI: What are you currently studying right now?
AF: Currently, I am studying the conservation genetics of largetooth sawfish, Pristis pristis, in Dr. Nicole Phillips’ lab at the University of Southern Mississippi. With the help of the Save Our Seas Foundation and the Shark Conservation Fund, our lab is collecting tissue samples from historic sawfish saws from various public and private natural history collections. We are using these tissue samples to assess the changes in levels of genetic diversity of largetooth sawfish populations over the past ~100 years. This project can help inform and guide conservation plans by determining whether the focus of these plans should be placed in protecting the genetic diversity left in viable populations. I like to think we are repurposing these historic saws; turning them from fishing trophies that represented the exploitation of sawfish to something that can now be used as a tool in sawfish conservation.
TFUI: What led you to study sawfish-- was it something you actively pursued or an opportunity?
AF: I was just in the right place at the right time. As I said before, I spent my four years in undergraduate volunteering with the Florida Program for Shark Research (FPSR), which runs the International Sawfish Encounter Database (ISED). Yet, it was not until I graduated that I was given the opportunity to help as a research technician on the ISED. My coworker come across a post on the Sawfish Conservation Society Facebook page that said Dr. Nicole Phillips was beginning a lab at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) and was looking for students. At that time, I was looking for professors to work with and so I emailed her to learn more about her research. It was just my luck that she was looking for a student to start on a sawfish project at USM. It seemed too good to be true because Dr. Phillips had already planned a trip to come sample the saws at the FPSR, so we luckily had the opportunity to meet in person and talk about graduate school only a couple of months after I initially emailed her. This is why I tell students to spend time volunteering in your future career field, so you can be in the right place when the right time comes around!
TFUI: Totally agree! Now, we haven't talked to a scientist yet who studies sawfish. Can you tell the TFUI audience a bit more about these animals, why they're special, and what dangers they face?
AF: Despite their shark like appearance, the sawfishes are a family of rays. There are five species of sawfish, all with unique morphological characteristics but they all share the title of being some of the most threatened of all sharks and rays. All five species are listed on the ICUN Red List as being either Critically Endangered or Endangered. These animals inhabit coastal areas and some species, such as the largetooth sawfish, utilize rivers and estuaries as nursery habitats. These areas in which sawfish frequent are also areas that have lots of fishing and human activity. Sawfish are known for their toothy saw but unfortunately, that also is what gets them entangled in fishing nets and other gear. Accidental catch in fishing gear is one of the major reasons for the decline of sawfish over the past century along with habitat degradation and exploitation. Lack of awareness can make it difficult to study and conserve sawfish. Spreading the word about these awesome animals can help to make sure people know what to do when they encounter a sawfish. You can read more about sawfish on the Sawfish Conservation Society website and help raise awareness.
TFUI: What can a person learn from a sawfish saw?
AF: There are a lot of interesting things to learn from sawfish saws and one of the main ones is that you can identify the species from which the saw is from. Each species has a distinct looking saw although, some species can be difficult to tell apart, such as the green and smalltooth sawfish, when they are younger. You can also get an estimate of how large the sawfish may have been at the time it was caught. Both the green and largetooth sawfish can get up to 7 m in total length and the saw is expected to be from 1/3 rd to 1/4 th of the total length, so you can imagine how big a saw from a 7m sawfish can get. You can also use the tissue from sawfish saws to get DNA from historic populations, as I am currently doing for my project.
TFUI: What do you think is the best way to get the general public interested in elasmobranchs?
AF: I think the best way to get the public interested in elasmobranchs is by first getting them to understand that they are not as dangerous as everyone has made them out to be. I think there is this misconception that sharks, skates, and rays are just out to bite and sting any human they come across but in fact, we are far more dangerous to them. I think if people interacted with elasmobranchs or if the media portrayed them in a better light they would be more curious about them and interested in learning more. When I am doing outreach for our lab, I usually compare sharks to babies since they test things with their mouth; it usually gets people laughing and it gets them to view sharks in a friendly way.
TFUI: How can we create more awareness about the special species you study?
AF: I think getting the public involved in the research being done really helps get them invested in sawfish conservation. For my project, we send out sampling kits to people around the country who have sawfish saws and they take genetic samples for us. Most people have no idea they even have a sawfish saw until they see that we are looking for saws and realize they have had one for years. Once we tell people about sawfish and how they have the chance to help with sawfish conservation most people are eager to help. They are especially invested once they send in a sample from their saw. The best feeling is when you have people tell you how they now use their saw to tell all their friends about sawfish.
Whether you have a sawfish saw or you are just someone who wants to help create more awareness about sawfish, you can do something that can help. If you have ever seen a sawfish or sawfish saw you can call 1-844- 4SAWFISH and if you have not already, then go tell your family and friends about sawfish right now!
TFUI: Do you think people in your state have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
AF: At the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) we have a lot of students who are interested in studying marine biology. Yet, among other students at USM and the public, I believe there could still be more awareness on the importance of the marine environment. Although Mississippi is a coastal state, there are still many citizens who do not get the opportunity to visit the ocean and enjoy it. I think that the first step in getting someone to have a good relationship with the ocean environment is showing them how to enjoy the ocean. In instances where people do not have the chance to visit the ocean, I think outreach is a great way to show people how wonderful the ocean is and spark their interest in what lies below the waves. I think making this connection between people and the ocean can help them to be more conscientious in their everyday lives and have a better relationship with the ocean environment.
TFUI: What about elasmobranchs?
AF: As far as the public’s relationship with elasmobranchs, here in Mississippi you get many students and members of the public who think elasmobranchs are dangerous. Our lab at USM has been working on spreading the word about elasmobranchs on campus since we all teach classes or labs and we also do a lot of outreach with the public as well. We are all very enthusiastic about each of the species we study and when we do outreach or teach we hope that our enthusiasm will rub off on others to make them excited about these animals rather than fear them.
TFUI: What has been your coolest sawfish encounter?
AF: I have never seen a wild sawfish, but I hope that one day I have the chance to encounter one. I saw one in an aquarium for the first-time last year, at the Ripley’s Aquarium in Myrtle Beach. It was an awesome experience, so I can’t even imagine how amazing it would be to see a sawfish in the wild.
TFUI: If you could only tell people ONE thing about sawfish, what would it be?
AF: If I could only tell people one thing about sawfish it would be that despite their shark-like body, they are rays. When you ask the public whether sawfish are rays or sharks, people will almost always answer that they are sharks. I think rays do not get enough credit and I think more people should know that this awesome animal is a species of ray!
TFUI: What is your whackiest "in the field" story?
AF: For my project, our field work can be unconventional since we end up sampling from personal sawfish collections which are sometimes in the more rural areas of the southern US. Recently our lab went down to do outreach in Alabama and decided to pick up some sawfish samples during this trip as well. Madie Cooper, a PhD student from James Cook University in Australia, was visiting our lab and our new volunteer, Cammey Rich, was coming out to do outreach with us for the first time.
TFUI: That's so funny! We interviewed Madie recently!
AF: My professor, Dr. Nicole Phillips, and I figured it would be a great time to show Madie and Cammey how we utilize our surrounding fishing communities for sawfish samples. The man we were visiting during this trip was a fisherman in Alabama named Buddy. He owned a tackle shop in the area and had a sawfish saw from his shrimp trawling days that he was willing to let us come sample. The bait and tackle shop we pulled up to was a rustic house on the bank of a river, with cane fishing poles and cricket bait included. Unfortunately, Buddy ended up running late so his friend Doody opened the shop for us, so we could see the saw. Doody was a great guy to talk to and we chatted with him about fishing and he even had Dr. Phillips call up a friend of his, Mr. Billy, who also had a saw in the area. Mr. Billy could not understand Dr. Phillips’ Michigan accent, so Doody ended up having to get on
the phone and ask if we could come take a look at his sawfish saw. Mr. Billy gladly agreed, and we headed over to his river home. Mr. Billy had also been a shrimp trawler back in the 70’s and had a large smalltooth sawfish saw hanging up on his porch that we took a genetic sample from. It was great to meet both Doody and Mr. Billy during our trip and it was certainly a great first saw search adventure for Madie and Cammey. This has by far been my favorite field work story because the fishermen were so willing to offer their old fishing trophies to our project and repurpose them into tools for sawfish conservation.
TFUI: So, what’s next for you?
AF: Since I have been working with natural history collections for my current graduate project I really have found a new appreciation for them. I would ideally like to work for a natural history museum when I graduate and work my way up to becoming a curator or collection manager. I would like to help show the public how important these collections are and how they can be used in a multitude of ways including research and the conservation of species. Also, since I have gained some experience using collections in genetic work I would like to help be a liaison between museum staff and geneticists wanting to use collections. Of course, I want to continue to help sawfish conservation and research and I will constantly be on the lookout for sawfish saws well after I graduate!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK annmarie 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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