There are some people you converse with on Twitter for so long that they seem like old friends-- and that's just the case with Chuck Bangley! Chatting with him for this interview felt like catching up with an old friend... and we hope that you feel that way by the end of this special post.
The Fins United Initiative: Thanks for being with us, Chuck! So did you have a moment where you knew you wanted a career in marine science?
Chuck Bangley: I honestly don't remember the exact moment I decided I wanted to pursue a career in marine science. I've just always been enthralled by sharks, marine life, and the ocean in general. My parents have a story about finding a washed-up dogfish when I was a toddler and being utterly fascinated by it, so it must have hit me at a very early age.
TFUI: What are you currently studying right now?
CB: Currently I'm working as a Postdoctoral Fellow studying shark migration and habitat use as part of the Smithsonian Movement of Life Initiative. The Movement of Life Initiative is a multi-institute project that aims to use animal movement data to answer important questions about the habitat needs, interactions with other species, and other aspects of a species' ecology to inform conservation and management efforts. Currently Movement of Life is focused on three core groups: migratory birds in South America, large land mammals in Asia, and coastal sharks along the US east coast.
CB: Obviously the sharks are where I come in.
TFUI: [laughs] Of course.
CB: We work with four species meant to cover a variety of ecological roles: the Dusky Shark, the Bull Shark, the Blacktip Shark, and the Smooth Dogfish. In addition, researchers at SERC have been studying the movements of Cownose Rays since 2014 and I've been helping out with that. We tag these species with acoustic transmitters that are surgically implanted into the body cavity and emit an ultrasonic signal that carries a unique ID code for the individual shark. The signals are picked up by acoustic receivers deployed all along the coast, and tag detection data are shared through networks of researchers working on acoustic tagging. I coordinate our tagging trips, and once we have enough tag detection data I pair them up with environmental data and use statistical modeling to identify areas of habitat where our tagged animals are likely to be. This way we can identify important habitat areas that might require more attention when managing fisheries or offshore and coastal development nearby.
TFUI: Your work involves R-programming, a statistical programming language. It's known for having a steep learning curve-- how have you been using it?
CB: I end up using R quite a bit, because its versatility and power allows me to use some statistical methods that other (sometimes much easier to use) stats programs just won't do. Marine ecology data, especially for large, highly mobile, and difficult to capture animals like sharks, tend not to follow the "rules" of statistcs very well and it's common to end up in situations that don't fit the assumptions that allow the more common statistical tests to work. In R, however, someone has likely already written a package or a script that will run whatever method will actually work with your data, and if you really want to come up with your own way of getting the software to do something there's nothing stopping you from writing your own scripts. For my work I need a program that will both run complex modeling and provide good visuals, which given enough lines of code R can do well.
TFUI: Do you think it's helpful in science?
CB: I've developed a more positive relationship with the program over time and think it's overall been tremendously helpful in my research, but I've often said that R is the most useful thing you'll ever hate.
TFUI: Ha, you can say that again!
CB: R is a quirky beast, and the important thing to remember is that it can do just about anything, but you have to tell it to do everything. As a free open-source software R solves a lot of problems inherent with access to powerful stats programs, but the trade-off is that you essentially have to learn a new language to use it. I was introduced to it in an ecological stats class in grad school, where it was portrayed as one of the tools you can use to figure out what your data are telling you, and that was a philosophy that really helped me avoid getting too bogged down fighting code. There are a lot of good books written on using R for specific topics like telemetry or community ecology, and the breadth of free help pages and forums available on the internet is amazing and a little intimidating. I was introduced to R Studio about halfway through grad school, which completely changed my relationship with R. R Studio makes it much easier to keep everything organized in R, and also makes it very easy to save and re-use your best lines of code.
TFUI: Good to know! So, what do you think is the best way to get the general public interested in conservation initiatives/policies?
CB: That's a tough one and I can really only speak to what's been successful for me.
TFUI: Of course.
CB: I think people are really fascinated by the animals and ecosystems that share their local environment. It's one thing to admire the beauty of the Great Barrier Reef from afar in rural North Carolina, but I think it affects people differently to find out that there are amazing animals much closer to home. I've given a lot of talks about sharks in the estuaries of North Carolina (the focus of my PhD dissertation) and inevitably someone from the audience will come up to me afterwards and tell me about how they never knew their family cottage on the bay was near a shark nursery or that the sharks in their favorite fishing spot might migrate all the way to Florida or Maine. That personal connection might help people imagine how the daily choices made by them and their communities affect ecosystems that are practically in their own backyard.
TFUI: Being based out of the USA, do you think people there have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
CB: I think the USA, while certainly not perfect, is ahead of a lot of other nations in terms of approaching the marine environment with conservation in mind.
CB: We haven't always thought that way and we definitely did some damage on the way to figuring it out, but I think the mentality has really shifted to trying to have a healthier relationship with the marine environment. Sustainability is literally written into our fishery management laws. The Endangered Species Act, when enacted properly, is one of the most powerful environmental laws in the world. The US has a tendency to set the standard for international environmental policies. While certain high-profile politicians might grab the headlines, I've found that in general most Americans view conservation positively.
TFUI: What about sharks?
CB: In terms of sharks, US shark fisheries are among the best-managed in the world. Finning (except in limited circumstances with one species) is prohibited in US waters, commercial fisheries are managed under tight quotas and other management strategies, and recreational shark fishing is moving towards a mostly catch-and-release fishery. Our fishery management policies are meant to be science-based and generally try follow the best available information at the time the regulations are being developed. As for non-fishery relationships, the US has a pretty good recent track record on that front too and sharks are increasingly viewed more as interesting local wildlife and less as a menace. Just look at Cape Cod's burgeoning White Shark population, which the locals have mostly coexisted with peacefully and even view as a source of pride.
TFUI: Do you think the US fishery management policies are allowing shark populations to recover in your neck of the woods?
CB: There is certainly still work to be done but there are good data showing that shark populations in the US are starting to rebuild from severe declines in the 1980s and 1990s. Many species now have stable or increasing populations and others like the Atlantic Sharpnose Shark can actually be very abundant. As demonstrated by the new regulations for Shortfin Mako Sharks, US fishery management can also be pretty quick to respond to issues with shark populations.
TFUI: In your opinion, what else can be done?
CB: For US fisheries, I think the best courses of action are to keep up the policies that are working to rebuild and maintain shark populations, and to support the good basic research that informs those policies.
TFUI: What has been the coolest Chondrichthyan research you've seen done?
CB: All of it. Seriously, Chondrichthyans are such amazing animals that they've provided a gateway to topics like population genetics or reproductive biology that I may have otherwise overlooked as a growing grad student. Biologically, there's such a diversity among the sharks, rays, and chimeras in ecological role, reproductive mode, physiology, behavior, and pretty much any other field of biology that there's always something new and exciting to learn about them.
TFUI: I really like that outlook, Chuck.
CB: As someone working with acoustic telemetry, one of the coolest projects I've seen has been the work of Danielle Haulsee out of Delaware Bay, where she deployed combination acoustic transmitters and receivers on large Sand Tiger Sharks. With these tags she not only could track the sharks' movements on other acoustic receivers, the built-in receiver would actually pick up other tagged animals near the shark's location. Basically these tagged sharks were mobile receivers taking a log of every other tagged animal that swam within detection range. With this data she was able to find out that Sand Tigers interact with other specific individual sharks at certain times of year and therefore have a social structure that varies based on where they are in their annual migration. She also got an idea of the marine community the Sand Tigers were a part of as they picked up tags from Striped Bass, Sturgeon, and other sharks including two Sandbar Sharks I tagged during my dissertation!
TFUI: No way! That is super cool! So, what’s next for you?
CB: With any luck, more sharks and rays!
TFUI: The perfect dream!
CB: I'm always game to try out new projects and am actually dipping my toes into some population genetics right now. I earned my Master's degree looking at Spiny Dogfish feeding habits and still rarely pass up a chance to see what's in shark puke. That said, my main research interests are still movement ecology and habitat use, and I can't imagine that I wouldn't find some way to work those topics into any future research.
TFUI: Where do you see yourself and your career in five years?
CB: That's a very dangerous question! Right now I'm looking primarily at an academic career track but certainly wouldn't pass up a good job in fishery management or with a science-based marine NGO. The US Atlantic coast is where all my work has been done so far and ideally I'd like to stick around and keep learning more about the sharks in my backyard.
TFUI: Always good to be around home! Now we have to ask... though we kind of have a sneaking suspicion we know your answer because of your twitter handle... what is your favorite Chondrichthyan species and why?
CB: Without any hesitation, the Spiny Dogfish (Squalus acanthias).
TFUI: Called it!
CB: Part of that is sentimental: I earned my Master's degree working with Spiny Dogfish, they were the first shark species I ever tagged, and they keep managing to show up like an old friend during a lot of the larger multispecies projects I've been involved with since. Obviously they've influenced a lot of my personal brand on social media. From a purely scientific standpoint, they are incredibly fascinating animals and might be the ultimate generalist among sharks.
CB: Research by Dr. Kara Yopak has found that their very brain structure reflects a lack of specialization, which I take to mean they're good at a little bit of everything a shark does. Their jaws are designed to allow them to swallow small prey while also sawing chunks out of larger prey (sometimes larger than them), and their feeding habits are basically a representation of the fish and invertebrate community from wherever they happen to be swimming at the time. They're highly social and travel in schools that can sometimes number in the thousands. From an evolutionary and taxonomic perspective, most of their relatives live in the deep sea, so Spiny Dogfish are essentially deep sea sharks that returned to the shallows where they became one of the most numerically dominant species of not only elasmobranchs, but any predatory fish in some ecosystems.
TFUI: WOAH! That's amazing!
CB: Where many larger sharks succumb to capture stress, Spiny Dogfish have been found to start recovering from the effects of stress before they're even released. And they do all this while reaching ages up to 70 years and carrying their young over a two-year gestation period, one of the longest pregnancies of any vertebrate. Their only weaknesses are their slow growth and late reproductive age (around 12 years for females) so like many Chondrichthyans they can be easily overfished (which has happened in European waters). Spiny Dogfish tend to be underestimated because they're relatively small and can be very abundant, but they are perfect little predators.
TFUI: We're keeping those knowledge nuggets for future #finfacts, I hope you know that, haha. Thanks for all of this amazing information, Chuck!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK chuck FOR HIS TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
SEARCH BY CATEGORIES