If you want one heck of a "Behind the Fins" interview to chomp on, you've come to the right place! TFUI is proud to introduce you to Joshua Moyer, who is currently earning his doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying the ecology and evolution of feeding in sharks.
"What the heck is that?!" you may be wondering. Good question! Guess you'll have to continue reading on to find out the trooth (sorry, we had to) of Joshua's work.
The Fins United Initiative: First off, we must ask... why the interest in elasmobranch fishes?
Joshua Moyer: One day when I was four years old my parents took me to the library to pick out a book that they would read with me. I picked out a shark book. What I saw captured my imagination and piqued my curiosity. The next time I went to the library I picked out another shark book, then another. To this day, it is a combination of imagination and
curiosity that keeps me interested in this captivating group of fishes. Sharks are an incredibly charismatic clade with fascinating natural histories through which you can learn about ecology and evolution.
TFUI: What are you currently studying right now?
JM: Right now I am earning my doctorate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst studying the ecology and evolution of feeding in sharks. This builds on the studies of tooth development, replacement, and morphology that I did to earn my Masters degree. My current work involves high-speed video of live sharks, which is always a treat and allows me to work with some really great colleagues at places like the New England Aquarium (Boston, MA) and the Mysitc Aquarium (Mystic, CT). The videography is analyzed alongside comparative anatomical work to build a more complete picture of the form, function, and evolution of feeding in various species of sharks.
TFUI: Tell us a bit more in-depth about what you have learned in regards to evolution, life history, and comparative morphology of elasmobranch fishes.
JM: When you’re watching a documentary or reading a popular science piece that claims that sharks are such successful predators that they have remained virtually unchanged since before the dinosaurs, it’s rubbish! It is true that the earliest sharks appeared over 400 million years ago, but since then sharks have diversified morphologically and ecologically in amazing ways! The earliest sharks were relatively small and had to contend with the placoderm fishes, some of which were predatory and quite large.
TFUI: Woah! No way!
JM: There were no whale sharks or great white sharks then. Elasmobranch morphology has diversified a great deal, which is what makes the small handful of species, such as the frilled shark or the six and seven gill sharks that display plesiomorphic, or ancestral, morphologies so fascinating. However, these are only a few of the more than 1,200 species of chondrichthyan fishes out there! I have also learned that no matter how closely you look at a group of sharks (or any organism for that matter), there is always something new to see, new questions to ask.
TFUI: On Twitter you talked about getting a letter from Dr. Eugenie Clark-- how cool is that?!
JM: That was incredibly awesome! I had reached the age when people were asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That’s why I wrote to Eugenie Clark. I had read about her, watched every National Geographic special I could find featuring her, and devoured her books. I knew I wanted to study sharks, but how do you turn that into a career? I figured marine biology was a viable option, and I asked her how to become a marine biologist. Her letter was a great piece of encouragement, confirming that a career spent studying sharks was not an abstract, unattainable dream – it was a reachable goal as long as passion and hard work are there to back it up.
TFUI: How did that motivate you?
JM: Recently, that letter has taken on a new significance for me. I’ve answered the question “what do you want to be when you grow up” and now grapple with a new question: “How does what you do better the lives of others?” As a shark biologist, it isn’t likely that I will bring about world peace, save people from burning buildings, or perform life- saving operations. But, I can inspire people the way Eugenie Clark inspired me. I can take the time to interact with others, especially students, to show them how far passion and dedication can take them. If that inspires them to pursue their own passions then I can say that I’ve had a positive impact on those around me the way Dr. Clark impacted my life.
TFUI: You have a free shark biology course (Sharks! Global Biodiversity, Biology, and Conservation). How did the idea for that come about?
JM: The Shark MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was the product of a very happy and productive professional relationship with my former Masters advisor Dr. William “Willy” Bemis of Cornell University. Willy is a world-class anatomist with a special interest in basal fishes. Having taught shark material together for several years, Willy and I were tracking with great interest the changing nature of higher education as well as the increase in citizen science efforts and online educational platforms. When Willy heard that Cornell was soliciting applications for new MOOCs, he recognized that this was a way to expose the world to shark biology in a way that hadn’t been done before.
TFUI: What a great way to see a gap and fill it!
JM: Together, Willy and I developed the curriculum, assembled a team of collaborators and core instructors, and worked with the great folks at Cornell’s Academic Technologies department to make Shark MOOC a reality. I hope that this MOOC will not only expose people to shark biology in an engaging, accessible fashion but also challenge biologists to consider new ways to present their fields of interest and update their teaching methodologies.
TFUI: We love that! So, do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment? If not, what can be done to better it?
JM: I think the majority of people in the United States have some level of awareness that healthy oceans are important. How frequently that awareness is put into action is another question. Whether awareness comes from a sort of romantic “preserve the beauty of nature” perspective or a more calculated view concerning the trade deficit of seafood, the economic importance of well-managed fisheries, and the awareness of anthropogenic alterations to climate and water chemistry seems to differ from person to person and place to place. The United States is a big country, and the role the ocean plays in the day-to-day life of a Minnesotan dairy farmer is more abstract (though no less real) than the role it plays in the life of a Cape Cod fisherman. We must tailor scientific education and outreach to specific audiences and make it clear that politicians who ignore facts concerning ocean health are not acting in the best interest of their constituents. Make marine biology relevant, not simply a topic for a magazine article or documentary. It requires an ability to listen and think critically. These are two skills that are lacking in
our culture right now.
TFUI: You've talked about shark tooth research on Twitter before- what have you learned looking at different shark teeth?
JM: The first thing I learned is never to take anything for granted when it comes to what is known or unknown about shark biology. For example, I was amazed to learn that for the last 80 years, researchers had been citing a study of shark teeth that incorrectly identified a tissue layer in the teeth of lamniform sharks. That required a lot of detective work through the shark tooth literature. I also learned that small cusplets on the sides of juvenile great white shark teeth are not homologous to the cusplets on the sides of sand tiger shark teeth. This may sound trivial, but for researchers piecing together the evolution of sharks from a fossil record dominated by teeth, every lit bit of information counts. These projects eventually led me to studies of blue shark, tiger shark, and gulper shark teeth and even gave me the chance to co-author a paper with archeologists unearthing shark teeth from colonial New England fishing settlements.
TFUI: What is your favourite part of your job?
JM: Without question, the part of my job that I enjoy the most is that it allows me to use my imagination in ways that yield real scientific data and observations. I love to look at a shark, make an observation, develop a question or idea for a research project, and then let my imagination run wild coming up with ways to answer the questions I have. Then comes the fun of testing the experimental designs or looking at more specimens to test my hypotheses. The process of making an observation, asking a question, and then imagining ways to answer the question allows me to use different parts of my brain to explore an area of biology I am passionate about, and I love that.
TFUI: What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself and your career in five years?
JM: Once I finish my PhD, I hope to continue building on the functional and comparative morphological work I’ve been doing. Hopefully, this will lead to fruitful post-doctoral work and then to a career in which I can mentor students in both formal classroom instruction and hands-on field and lab-based work. There is no substitute for rolling up your sleeves, and getting dirty! A good marine biologist should feel equally comfortable in the field and in the library, and I’d love to explore the world with students in both venues.
want to learn more from josh? now you can!
A note from Josh: If anyone is interested in further reading, links to some peer-reviewed papers and less formal blog posts that I’ve authored are below...
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK josh 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:
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