Sharks and climate change? Sign us up!
Or rather, let us follow Ian Bouyoucos around the world as he learns about these animals and their relationship with climate change in different settings. If there was ever someone we would want to tag along with on an adventure, it is definitely Ian. So we were super lucky that he took time out of his jam-packed schedule to chat with us about his fascinating (and really important!) work for this Behind the Fins interview.
Come on, what are you waiting for?! Read it!
The Fins United Initiative: Thanks for being here, Ian! So how did you go about choosing marine biology as a career path?
Ian Bouyoucos: I actually wanted to study dinosaurs when I was little, but it didn’t take long for me to develop an interest in the amazing living animals in the oceans.
TFUI: I feel you on that one, haha.
IB: My earliest fascination and dream of being a marine biologist started the first time I saw the 1954 movie, 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. I thought was going to be the first person (at the time) to document a living giant squid! Visiting aquariums, spending summers on Amity Island (Martha’s Vineyard, MA), and getting my hands on as much media on life in the oceans as I could quickly shifted my focus and led to what has now been a life-long fascination with sharks. Marine biology was always a passion but in high school I had the opportunity to work with shark biologist Greg Skomal for a three-year independent research project.
TFUI: That is so cool!
IB: That is when I seriously considered a career in science. Since then, I can’t imagine pursuing any other career, and I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to focus on learning more about sharks, but to also contribute to their conservation.
TFUI: What are you currently studying right now?
IB: I am currently studying how sharks in the tropics will fare in the warmer, more acidic oceans they will experience as a result of climate change. My research takes a conservation physiology approach, where I am interested in understanding how and why sharks respond the way they do to sources of stress brought on by climate change (e.g., ocean warming and acidification), which can ultimately inform conservation strategies for species deemed to be vulnerable. This work is the central focus of my PhD thesis, which I am undertaking through the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, and the Centre de Recherches Insulaires et Observatoire de l’Environnement (CRIOBE) of the École Pratique des Hautes Études (EPHE).
TFUI: Your research involved studying newborn reef sharks' physiological tolerance to climate change. Woah! Can you explain to the TFUI audience what exactly that all means?
IB: My research is the study of the “ecological energetics of climate change for tropical sharks.” To break that down, ecological energetics refers to understanding how the ability of an animal to use energy to survive and reproduce changes as environmental conditions change. Climate change will alter those environmental conditions and may change how well an animal uses energy in its habitat. Animals in the tropics already in live in environments that are quite hot and can quickly become too hot for them to survive if oceans warm by even two or three degrees Celsius. And sharks, one of the most threatened groups of animals in our oceans, may be slow to adapt to climate change because they generally mature late in life and give birth to very few offspring. To summarise, my research aims to understand how a group of animals that would appear to be inherently threatened by climate change performs in hotter, more acidic oceans, and whether these animals are in need of improved protection and/or management.
TFUI: And you’re a part of #physioshark! Can you tell us about that?
IB: The Physioshark research program (#physioshark on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter) started in 2013 by Associate Professor Jodie Rummer (Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University), and the first field season officially commenced in 2014. The overall objective of the project is to understand how human-induced stressors, primarily climate change, will affect newborn sharks in the tropics, and how that will play into the health and viability of adult shark populations. Physioshark was born out of collaboration between Dr Rummer and Dr Serge Planes, the director of the CRIOBE research station on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia, where Physioshark is primarily based. Several small projects related to Physioshark are also ongoing in Australia and the U.S. On Moorea, our research currently focuses on newborn blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) and sicklefin lemon shark (Negaprion acutidens) populations that appear to use the shallow nearshore habitat as nursery areas. While French Polynesia is the largest shark sanctuary in the world, meaning that the major threat sharks experience globally – fishing and overexploitation – is not a concern here, these shark populations still face the stressors and habitat loss associated with climate change. This makes French Polynesia an excellent system for addressing the alarming knowledge gap regarding how sharks will be affected by climate change. In addition to the research, community outreach is a very important part of Physioshark; since 2016 the team has been presenting about shark biology, climate change, and conservation to local schools and the public at large. The project also supports student research, volunteer opportunities, and collaboration and has a large presence and following on social media. Physioshark wouldn’t be possible without support from L’Oréal-UNESCO, the ARC and Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, the CRIOBE, the Institute des Récifs Coralliens du Pacifique, Labex CORAIL, Europcar Polynésie, The Company of Biologists, Passions of Paradise, and the Oceania Chondrichthyan Society.
TFUI: So how exactly do you carry out your research?
IB: I rely on a handful of physiology techniques to better understand how sharks respond to human-induced sources of stress, like fishing and climate change.
TFUI: Can you tell us more about them?
IB: Respirometry is a very important technique for my research. This technique estimates an animal’s oxygen uptake rate (a proxy of an animal’s metabolic rate) by measuring how quickly oxygen is removed from the water in a respirometry chamber. In other words, I observe how much sharks breathe, and then estimate how much oxygen they use at different activity levels (e.g., swimming vs resting) and in different environments (e.g., warm vs cool water). The respirometry chambers come in different designs, like ones that generate a current for sharks to swim against (like a treadmill), or ones meant for sharks to simply rest and breathe without swimming (which my study species, blacktip reef sharks and both species of lemon shark, are fully capable of). These chambers work the same way, where an aquarium pump connected to a recirculating loop generates a constant current to circulate water in the chamber, and another pump is set on a timer to turn off when I want to measure an oxygen uptake rate, and to turn back on to reoxygenate the chambers. The pump on the timer is only off for several minutes, so the sharks always have plenty of oxygen to breathe! Respirometry is critical to my research, and through it I can address questions from how sharks’ ability to use oxygen changes under climate change conditions, to how much energy sharks use as a result of getting caught in fishing gear.
TFUI: That is some really interesting stuff!
IB: My previous work looked into how sharks responded to getting caught in fishing gear. One technique I use still, involves taking a small blood sample (usually 1-2 mL) that I analyse for a variety of metrics using hand-held meters. For instance, I look for glucose (sugar) concentrations in blood using a blood glucose meter than you can buy off the shelf in a pharmacy. I am also using a meter designed to measure the pH (acidity) of cheese to measure the pH of shark blood. These portable blood meters are the best solution for assessing the condition of an animal on-the-spot and in the field without waiting hours to get back to a lab for analysis. This is a great technique for characterizing an animal’s stress response, and to track an animal’s recovery after experiencing stress.
I am also interested in relating sharks’ behaviour to their physiology. To accomplish this, I use accelerometers, which are electronic tags that log data about movement. Accelerometers are the same devices in our smartphones that track the orientation of the screen or in fitness-tracking devices like Fitbit. For sharks, accelerometers can be used on fishing gear to look at how intensely a shark fights when it’s caught. They can also be attached to the shark to monitor its behaviour, so that by simply analysing the raw acceleration data, you can determine when the shark is swimming, when it rests, and even when it might be trying to hunt or outswim a predator without even witnessing it. Accelerometers can even be used in conjunction with respirometry, making it possible to estimate how much energy sharks are using on a daily basis.
TFUI: So, in your opinion, why is your work so important?
IB: Research into the effects of climate change on sharks is important for understanding which species are most vulnerable. Sharks are one of the most threatened groups of animals in the oceans as a result of human actions. Climate change is the newest recognized threat to sharks – literature on the effects of climate change on sharks has only been coming out since 2014 – and it is a threat that sharks currently face. We know very little about how sharks from different parts of the world with different lifestyles will respond to the physical and chemical changes to the oceans as climate change progresses; only a handful of species have undergone examination. Will climate change make sharks less tolerant to the human-induced stressors they already experience? Studies like this will be helpful for improving the efficacy of current conservation tools for sharks, like shark sanctuaries, that might not be well-suited to minimize the impact of climate change.
TFUI: Why does the general public need to know about the physiological tolerance to climate change of sharks? How does the general public benefit from that?
IB: Research on the physiological tolerance of sharks to climate change is important for understanding why climate change could be a problem for sharks, which could translate to a problem for us. While it may be difficult to communicate some of the benefits sharks can provide, such as helping to maintain healthy ecosystems, sharks provide us with many tangible benefits. For instance, sharks are important as a source of protein for many nations. Sharks are also important medical resources for research aimed at better understanding cancer. People can benefit from healthy shark populations, but if sharks cannot tolerate the sources of stress we already expose them to in addition to climate change, then it could be a big problem for us.
TFUI: What has been your toughest experience out on the field or lab?
IB: My toughest experience so far – the one that was probably the most physically and mentally draining – was my last day of sampling for this past Physioshark field season. Arguably one of the most important sampling events of the season, I had to collect blood samples from wild sharks on the day of my flight to a collaborator’s lab in Canada for analysis. The majority of the day was an exercise in why “fishing” is not called “catching.” Luckily, I had sharks in the laboratory that I could take samples from as a back-up, although I also had to release these sharks back to where they were initially caught and completely pack up the lab space – and I still didn’t have enough samples. With the little time I had left, I collected the last of my samples from wild sharks with minutes to spare to catch the last ferry from Moorea to Tahiti to make my flight! Reflecting on this, I’ve had experiences in the lab and field (and experiences where I attempt to conduct lab work in the field) that seem objectively more taxing, but after living in the field for five-and-a-half months, that last day was a huge challenge.
TFUI: Phew, that does sound tough! The places you’ve travelled to sound so amazing… do you think people in the different places you have travelled/studied in have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
IB: I have been fortunate enough to have worked in countries that have been proactive in conserving sharks and their natural resources. The Bahamas, for instance, has been a shark sanctuary since 2011, and has recently taken steps toward banning single-use plastics and to protect one of its most important and significant fisheries, the queen conch fishery. French Polynesia has been a shark sanctuary since 2012 (although all species except mako sharks have been protected since 2005), and is currently the world’s largest shark sanctuary. Sharks are also of great significance to Polynesian culture. There are still general misconceptions about sharks and how people interact with the ocean, and this is one area where scientists can step in and share knowledge with the public.
TFUI: Agreed. So, bringing it back to you - what was some advice you wish you had gotten when you were 20 and starting out this career path?
IB: A career in research can be all-consuming. The work never really stops. Burning out is a serious concern of mine. The advice I wish I had gotten early on is that there is more to a fulfilled life than only your work, and it is important that you maintain a healthy work-life balance. I remember hearing this when I was just starting out, but the advice came from a friend who was quite overworked themselves and didn’t come off as the best exemplar! So, I suppose I wish I had gotten this advice in a much more convincing way when I was starting out on my career path!
TFUI: What has your PhD experience taught you about yourself, your career path and, ultimately, the sharks?
IB: My PhD experience has taught me a lot about my limits, which ones I can and should push, and which ones to respect. Taking limits into account this way will help out in the long-run for finessing a work-life balance that I will need to hold onto to stay dedicated to my current career path. As far as my career goes, I very much enjoy my research and understand its significance to shark conservation, but I’ve come to appreciate that sharks aren’t the only thing I would be able to study to have a fulfilling career in marine biology, or even research. I am also not sure for how much longer I will want to study the effects of stress on animals! With the sharks in mind, my master’s and PhD has taught me that, compared to other fishes, sharks are generally not high-performance animals, and that different species react very differently to stress no matter how closely related the shark in question may be to another well-studied species. At the moment I am a year-and-a-half into my PhD that, for my degree program, is almost halfway done. So I am sure I still have a lot left to learn!
TFUI: What’s your dream research project?
IB: I am so grateful for all the support I have had to work with sharks for as long as I have, that my research really does feel like the dream project. But besides maybe working with giant squids, my dream research project would involve exploring the deepest parts of the ocean and learn more about the incredible diversity of life that has evolved to thrive under such extreme conditions.
TFUI: Do you speak a different language? If so, has it helped you in science? How?
IB: I speak French, which makes working in French Polynesia a lot easier! In fact, I think being able to speak some French at the beginning of my PhD helped me get the position. Among the scientific community it can seem as if English is all you need to know to get by, because many of the big international conferences and journals are in English. However, being able to speak the predominant language in whichever region you work opens the doors to science communication with the community at large. During my work in French Polynesia, it has been very important to visit local schools and to host public seminars to be able to communicate my research to an audience for which English-language scientific literature may be a barrier. Overall, I think being able to communicate your science in other languages is very important. I also think that it is very much appreciated by my French collaborators!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK ian FOR His TIME AND WE CAN'T WAIT TO SEE WHAT'S IN STORE FOR Him!
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TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
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