David Curnick has a secret: he loves sloths. There, now that we have that out of the way, we can talk about the other animals he also loves- sharks! His passion for a 'life aquatic' was ignited when younger and has flourished into a career that many can (and do!) envy. Join us as we talk about the work David is a part of and who, in his opinion, would win between the two loves of his life: shark vs sloth.
The Fins United Initiative: David, thank you for being here with us! We have to know what made you decide to study the ocean and its marine creatures?
David Curnick: I was heavily influenced by my father who is an avid fisherman and who managed a recreational fishery in South East England. Weekends and summers spent helping out down on the lakes and rivers are some of my fondest childhood memories and really ignited the passion for a life aquatic.
TFUI: What is your day-to-day schedule like?
DC: When I am not away on fieldwork, my day is unfortunately less glamorous than I would like. Most days are spent at my desk writing funding proposals, wrestling with statistics, or procrastinating on social media (see @d_curnick on twitter for my latest ramblings). However, my office is based within ZSL London Zoo so I can take a break from the desk at any time and go and see some cool animals. Unsurprisingly, the aquarium is my favourite place.
TFUI: Of course.
DC: My work is part of the Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science, an international consortium of researchers and NGOs aiming to better understand the protection provided by MPAs and the impact they have on the wider health of the ocean. The area I am personally researching is the efficacy of marine protected areas for highly mobile pelagic predators such as sharks and tuna. My primary study site is the Chagos Archipelago within the British Indian Ocean Territory. The waters around the Archipelago were declared a no-take marine protected area in 2010, but we currently have very little idea of its conservation value for mobile pelagic species.
TFUI: Can you tell us why is your research important?
DC: We need to get better at managing pelagic species for the benefit of both ocean health in general but importantly also for global food security.
TFUI: Can you tell TFUI readers a little bit about your Shark Aggregation Project?
DC: This project was set up with two main aims. First, we want to map current known shark aggregation locations around the world. By collating this information, and effectively playing a giant game of dot-to-dot, we hope to better understand the migratory behaviour of some shark species. Such fundamental behaviour is poorly understood for most species and existing studies are often dependent on using expensive tagging methods. Second, we want to investigate how these aggregations are changing over time. Are some aggregations increasing in size and frequency? Or are they decreasing? Have we even lost some aggregation sites?
TFUI: Can our readers do anything to help?
DC: We are collating information on all known shark and ray aggregations. If you have some useful information to share, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org
TFUI: You've done work on a myriad of topics: sharks, tuna, mangroves, corals, Chagos archipelago, MPAs & fisheries. Do you find all of these have a relationship in some way (for example, we know some species of elasmobranchs depend on mangroves and corals)?
DC: I’m lucky enough to work within an institution that enables great research freedom. As such, I have been able to work on a variety of species and research questions. There is however some logic to the projects I have worked on. My MSc thesis was on coral physiology and especially their ability to thrive in harsh mangrove habitats. As such, my first job at ZSL was coordinating mangrove and coral projects along with our projects in and around the Thames estuary. Our coral projects were predominantly focussed around the EDGE of existence programme (www.edgeofexistence.org). Through EDGE I got involved in the pygmy sloth project, a species that, at the time, was believed to exclusively inhabit mangroves. Concurrently, ZSL were asked to contribute to the consultation on whether to establish an MPA around the Chagos Archipelago. As I was conducting the research for that initial consultation document, I found it raised more questions than it answered. I therefore decided to apply for funds to undertake a PhD and investigate those questions. I have been working on them ever since.
TFUI: Do you think MPAs are the best way one can help protect our oceans?
DC: They are one option, but they are certainly not a silver bullet. They should be used, where appropriate, in conjunction with other management interventions such as tighter fisheries regulations and reducing global carbon emissions.
TFUI: Do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment? If not, what can be done to better it?
DC: As an island nation I would say that, on average, yes, the British are connected to the ocean (if only whilst on holiday in some cases). However, regionally it is highly variable. For example, many Londoners are unaware that the part of the River Thames they see running through the city is not even a river at all, it’s an estuary. They are even more surprised when you tell them that it is home to over 125 species of fish (including seahorses) and is home to populations of grey and harbour seals.
TFUI: What has been your most exciting discovery/trip?
DC: This is a tough one as I am very lucky and have been on some amazing expeditions. However, if pushed, I would say the most amazing place I have been to is Escudo de Veraguas, a small island on the Caribbean side of Panama that is home to the Critically Endangered pygmy sloth (Bradypus pygmaeus). It is just such a beautiful island. And as for my top moment, I think climbing a termite covered mangrove tree to catch a sloth (in order to weigh, measure and take hair samples from it), only for her to reveal a young baby clinging on to her tummy like a limpet, is hard to beat. Obviously, we let them both go on their way undisturbed.
TFUI: Please tell us about the Chagos archipelago and what sort of research you've done there! What makes that research spot unique compared to other archipelagos?
DC: The Chagos Archipelago is an amazing collection of islands and atolls in the middle of the Indian Ocean and I have been lucky enough to research it since 2010. The Archipelago is unique due to its remote location and uninhabited islands (with the exception of the main island Diego Garcia), which means that it has escaped many of the pressures faced by other areas. As such, it has been previously estimated to harbour six times the reef fish biomass compared to other sites in the Indian Ocean.
TFUI: Any project you're working on currently?
DC: I am currently working on a project that seeks to better understand the importance of the Archipelago for pelagic species and what conservation benefit it is providing for them. To do this we use biotelemetry techniques in combination with historical fisheries data and stable isotope and genetic analyses.
TFUI: Finally... we have to know... who do you think would win in a battle (on land): a sloth or a shark? (For those who don't know, David is a secret sloth fan)
DC: Don’t let their cute faces deceive you, sloths are feisty when they need to be! Armed with sharp claws and a vice like grip, I back the sloths.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK david FOR HIS TIME AND WE WISH HIM WELL ON HIS CURRENT/FUTURE PROJECTS!
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TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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