Earlier this year, as I was looking at options for my "What will I do after I graduate?" plan, Cape Eleuthera Institute popped up on my radar. Well, that's a lie. It had been on my radar, and an option I was very interested in. Sadly, my schedule just didn't work out where I could join the research team there.
Why Cape Eleuthera Institute? For one thing, hello Bahamas, I miss you. And then there was the Shark Research Associate I wanted to work under, Dr. Owen R. O'Shea. If you've never heard of him, trust me, you will after following shark/ray news for a while. He's a marine ecologist with a background in coral reef ecology and elasmobranch biology. He finished his PhD with Murdoch University and The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) in 2012- jealous, much?
I reached out to him, and his response was, "While I am a shark biologist, my actual area of expertise is actually stingrays. They are after all flat sharks, evolved first and face the same dangers and threats as sharks, yet remain misunderstood and under-represented!"
Even better, Dr. O'Shea. Even better.
The Fins United Initiative: First thing is first- what’s your dream research/conservation project?
O'Shea: This is a hard question, because as a scientist, any research project is a dream! Many of my research interests revolve around how an animal uses space and what environmental factors are responsible for driving these patterns of habitat occupation. So with this said, I am interested in how remote atolls and islands act as barriers to dispersal for live bearing sharks and rays.
TFUI: Can you elaborate a little on that?
O'Shea: For example, in parts of the Caribbean we have islands separated by deep ocean trenches that provide challenges for animals to move among different habitats. So how do these environments influence/impact movement and genetic diversity of stingrays?
TFUI: Sound interesting! Speaking of stingrays, if you could study one species, which would it be, why, and what would you focus on?
O'Shea: I'm really interested in the underdogs - the species that receive less attention that the big, charismatic or awe inspiring species. There is a type of stingray fought in only a few locations in the Indo-Pacific region, including parts of northern Australia called the porcupine ray, because they are covered in a vast array of tiny teeth and spines.
TFUI: Hello new species for TFUI to cover, haha.
O'Shea: Virtually nothing is known of this cumbersome, friendly animal and although I have conducted some rudimentary research on it, I would really like to include it within my research focuses. The reason is that sub-populations of this animal are being discovered all the time and nothing is known if its most basic biology.
TFUI: I can't wait to see what you discover- and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Researching more into a species- new or 'old'- requires some field time. What's your worst experience in the field or lab?
O'Shea: I have many stories to answer here, but some are likely not printable or repeatable! I would say the worst experience is not allowing enough anchor rope out on an incoming tide. I was anchored in around 12 feet of water off the coast of a remote, uninhabited island within The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, in northern Australia. I came back after having conducted some shoreline surveys with my team, to notice our boats missing and drifting rather rapidly away! The tide had lifted our anchors and so I had to swim to the boats in waters infested with crocodiles and sharks to bring them back!
TFUI: Side story- I once had a research partner who thought a crocodile was in the water with us. It took 10 minutes of us freaking out to realize they probably weren't in those waters. Turns out, it was a really dirty manatee. Anyways, back to you, what did you learn from that experience?
O'Shea: The lesson I learnt was to let out enough rope for the conditions, and then ADD some more! In extreme conditions, always have someone stay on the boat, especially if the weather is terrible and this risk is exacerbated
TFUI: Noted. So, what is one piece of equipment you can’t live without out on the field?
O'Shea: I would say this is another tough question, as I have a whole set of tools that I need to conduct my research. Currently I would say two very large hand nets for catching big stingrays. If I forget a tape measure, I can still collect genetic or stable isotope samples. If I forget my tags, I can still collect other data, BUT if I forget my nets, I can't even catch an animal at all.
TFUI: Ooh, so true. Definitely need to catch the animal in order to do the research. Well,we're almost out of time, but I have one more question for you: if 2015 could change one thing for elasmobranchs, what would you hope it would be?
O'Shea: I think I would like to see a greater global appreciation of their importance within ecosystems, not just within the scientific community, but children in schools, bricklayers on building sites, postmen and women having discussion on the doorsteps of their neighbourhood delivery letters- making shark science accessible in a global citizen kind of context. So much great science is being done but is restricted in many ways, whether it be by scientific language, concepts and methodologies or complicated multivariate modelling - I believe everyone should have access to the science that increases understand of our planet and the creature with which we share it.
TFUI: We couldn't agree more, Dr. O'Shea!
the fins united initiative would like to thank dr. o'shea for his time
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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