Ever heard of Dr. Yannis Papastamatiou? He's one of those shark researchers that I hope to meet soon. Yannis has had some fun adventures - including filming for "700 Sharks"! Learn more about his work in this "Behind the Fins" series interview.
The Fins United Initiative: First off: why sharks? What drew you to them?
Yannis Papastamatiou: I grew up in London but used to spend every summer in Greece where I would be in the water snorkeling almost every day. That’s where my love of the marine world started but what also peaked my interest in sharks was Jaws. While the film did unintentionally cause huge problems for sharks, it actually had the opposite effect on me. After watching the film I just wanted to learn more. The other film that played a big role in my interest in sharks was the National Geographic special with Eugene Clarke. I would never forget her saying that if you saw a shark in the water, you didn’t need to be afraid, and that stuck with me. I got to tell her that when I eventually was able to meet her!
TFUI: What are you currently studying right now?
YP: At the moment we are trying to understand the role sharks may play in transporting nutrients within and among coral reefs. We are also trying to understand how ecological processes such as competition may structure the distribution and habitat use of shark communities. My colleagues and I are also trying to understand the sociobiology of wild sharks. There has been increasing evidence that sharks form social associations with each other, but studying this in the wild is extremely difficult. I am also interested in digestion in sharks and my colleagues and I are investigating if some sharks can digest seagrass!
TFUI: You currently are part of the Predator Ecology & Conservation Lab at FIU (I almost went there for my undergraduate degree!). Can you tell us a little bit about the research you and your colleagues currently do?
YP: I run the Predator Ecology lab with my colleague Dr Demian Chapman. Overall, my lab studies the behavioral and physiological ecology of sharks and rays and uses that information to help understand the roles these animals may play in marine ecosystems. We use a variety of tools but primarily telemetry and data-loggers. Finally, I am also interested in the community ecology of mesophotic coral reefs, which are reefs > 50 m deep (150 ft or so). These coral reefs have been traditionally understudied because they are beyond the range of most scuba diving ecologists. We do have the diving capabilities to go to those depths and are just now realizing how important these deeper reefs may be. I have my lab set up with rebreathers and other diving equipment so that we can work at these deeper depths.
TFUI: Why is your research important?
YP: One of my major goals is to understand what drives patterns of space use in sharks. Why do individuals of a certain species in one area use a much smaller home range than individuals of the same species in a different location? Are these differences driven by biotic (e.g. how much prey is available) or abiotic factors (e.g. water temperature)? If we can understand some of the mechanisms behind shark space and habitat use then we can predict how they may change in the future. How effective will an MPA be in the future if the ocean gets warmer? Traditionally, deeper mesophotic reefs have been thought to be somewhat isolated and out of the way from stresses like fishing and storms (out of sight out of mind!). Now we are realizing this probably isn’t true, these deeper ecosystems are unique and they can be harmed. They need protection as well.
TFUI: You have been using new tag technologies for your sharks- how have they been a game changer in terms of your research?
YP: I look at tag technology as a way of spying on a shark’s life. As far as sensors go, there are some that are used routinely (e.g. depth, temperature), others that are becoming popular (e.g. acceleration) and others that have not kicked off yet but hopefully one day will (e.g. stomach pH, blood oxygen). We have gained a great deal of insight from these sensors. We are starting to understand the activity patterns of sharks thanks to these tags and how their activity may relate to their body temperatures and state of digestion. We have learnt that sharks swim and dive so as to behave as efficiently as possible while searching for prey, similar to the behavior we would predict from mechanics and physics. We have learnt that digestion in sharks may differ between species and that these differences can be found across vertebrates (although we don’t know why). We have learnt that mortality of shark pups in a nursery may be very high as the majority are starving to death (note these are not all my studies!). Thanks to these new sensors we are starting to understand why these animals use the habitats we see them in and why they behave as they do.
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about being a professor?
YP: I would say having graduate students and being able to watch them develop their projects, especially as they start to pick up momentum. I love it when the data starts rolling in; it can be a slow start but then it picks up and their hard work starts to get rewarded
TFUI: Do you think people in your state have a good relationship with the ocean environment? What about with sharks? If not, what can be done to better it?
YP: Overall, yes I do. I have worked a fair bit with professional fishers in Florida. They proved vital when we started our research into adult sawfish in the Everglades a few years ago, and more recently when discussing shark migrations into Florida. They fish for a living but are very supportive of marine conservation. Many of them refuse to allow clients to kill sharks they catch. I feel that most the state responds fairly rationally when a shark bite occurs or when a large shark is seen off the beach. Of course not everyone sees it that way, and we still have a long way to go. I think outreach can help a lot as well as a rational approach to conservation.
TFUI: What do you hope 2018 changes for sharks in regards to their conservation/protection?
YP: Overall I think we are doing a fairly good job in our trajectory for shark and ray conservation. We of course have a very long way to go, but I do feel that our efforts are starting to make a difference. We are seeing more and more areas being protected and more science to make sure the right areas are protected. We are starting to see some evidence of species that have traditionally suffered serious population decline, start to increase in numbers. The global opinion of sharks is changing; even over the last 20 years the number of people who are interested and/or like sharks has increased dramatically. I would like to make sure we maintain focus on prioritizing the conservation of the right species. Not all species face the same threats; some are critically endangered and others are doing fine. Protecting species shouldn’t be a popularity contest; we need to focus on those species that need it. I also would like to see continued outreach for the often neglected rays. Sawfish are getting more attention as one of the most endangered groups of elasmobranchs, but the other rays and skates should not be forgotten about.
TFUI: You've had your work featured in big publications (i.e. National Geographic and BBC). Do you think exposure of a scientist's work can lead to better conservation initiatives/policies?
YP: I do. For one thing, conservation becomes a lot easier when the public is supportive of the issue and outreach has helped a lot in that regard. It’s important to make the public are of the serious conservation concerns, while also maintaining their interest in these fascinating animals. The public are more likely to be exposed to outreach when it comes from the big publications so that always helps. To be honest, I neglected outreach for a long time as I didn’t think it was my job; once I published my work in a scientific journal, I was done. That’s the wrong approach, and while I certainly don’t specialize in outreach, I do make efforts to get my work out so that those who are not combing the scientific literature can also read it.
TFUI: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself and your career in five years?
YP: This summer I have projects planned in Hawaii, French Polynesia and the Galapagos. Hopefully, in 5 years I will be doing exactly the same things I am doing now. I want to keep on having research projects around the world, and still be diving and exploring mesophotic reefs.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK DR. YANNIS FOR HIS TIME AND
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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