SHARK!

This post was written by Diana Birney, Supervising Marine Biologist for our upcoming SHARK! exhibit, opening August 29, 2015.

We fear them, we love them, and we are fascinated by them. We have a whole week on television dedicated to them that draws millions of viewers every year. Humans have an amazing obsession with this interesting group of animals, especially considering that we really don’t know that much about them.

It’s clear from the popularity of movies like Jaws and Sharknado that we love to be scared by sharks. While there is a good reason to give sharks their space, they are not the crazed “man-eaters” that Hollywood has often portrayed. In fact, since 1911 there have only been two deaths and less than fifty unprovoked attacks by sharks in Texas.

You’re actually more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be attacked by a shark.

However, every time you enter a body of water, you should go in with the knowledge that a shark could potentially be there. When it comes down to it, it’s their space — not ours.

That doesn’t mean that you can never go in the water again, it just means be smart about what you do in the ocean…

So go to the beach, bring your sunscreen (and reapply it often!). But also bring your knowledge of what lives in the habitat you are about frolic in. Feel like you don’t know enough? Don’t worry! Here’s a nice set of guidelines for your next trip:

1. Sharks aren’t searching for humans to eat

There is no evidence to suggest that sharks like eating people. In fact, considering the numbers of people that go to the beach and the attack statistics, it would seem that sharks DON’T like eating people. A beach is a potential buffet at certain times of the year, but the sharks don’t seem to take advantage of it (good news for us!).

When people do get bitten, it’s usually one bite and the shark lets go. This is similar to the other night when I had a plate of broccoli I was going to town on and ran into a bite of mushroom (I hate mushrooms). I promptly spit that nasty bite out and went back to my broccoli feast (YUM). Sharks tend to follow schools of fish or, for our larger shark friends, mammals such as seals. Schools tend to frequent coast lines and often when someone is bitten there is a school of fish in the area that the shark was intending to chow down on.

2. Sharks have AMAZING noses

Sharks can sense blood in a ratio of one part per million. They also have sensors on their noses called ampullae of Lorenzini. These are electroreceptors that can sense the electrical field given off by everything swimming around in the ocean — including you and me! If a wounded person or animal enters the water, a shark can be drawn to the blood but also to the electrolytes that pour out of the wound as well.

There is a common idea that punching a shark on the nose will make it less likely to attack you. This stems from the fact that the ampullae are all over the nose and punching the shark might disrupt the electroreceptors. Another reason this (sometimes) works is that most sharks like certain prey items and most of those prey items don’t know how to punch — giving the shark a strong clue that it won’t like eating you. 

However, it’s important to not just go around punching sharks… right under their nose is a huge mouth with lots of teeth, and you may end up just losing an arm instead of scaring the sharks.

3. “There’s a chance I’ll bite if you bother me too long” – sharks

This summer there was a shark bite incident off of the coast of California with a White Shark. A swimmer got too close to a fishing line that caught a shark. The shark had been on the line long enough to be mad at everyone and everything. When the swimmer approached it, unaware it was even there, the shark lashed out. The moral of the story is that sharks, like dogs and cats, have no way to communicate with us that they are uncomfortable or in pain. The only avenue available is their teeth. Many bites are exploratory or just to say “BACK OFF.” 

A good rule of thumb in any environment is that if it has teeth it can/will bite.

4) Stay with your swimming buddy

Having a buddy is essential for beach safety. Rip tides can pull even proficient swimmers down and out into the ocean (and are actually much more likely to happen to you than a shark attack). Sharks, just like other apex predators, e.g., lions, tend to go after prey that is separated from the pack — it makes for an easy dinner.  So if you are swimming alone a shark might think you are a solitary prey item. If you are with someone else, the shark might still think you are prey, but will be less likely to attack a small “pack” rather than a solitary animal.

The buddy system is also beneficial just in case something does happen. Your buddy can get help and report exactly what happened in case you are in shock or missing.

 

5) Daytime is the best playtime

Most sharks hunt at night, dawn and dusk when they can see the best. Fortunately, most people go to the beach during the day. Just be extra careful if you are going out in the evening or at night because the shark can see you better than you can see them, guaranteed. However, if you are in an area frequented by White Sharks remember that they tend to hunt during the day when their traditional prey are more active.

6) Play smart

It’s important to know what signs indicate a higher chance of sharks in the area. Sandbars and the drop offs around sand bars are a common shark hang out. Sharks can swim in extremely shallow water, so don’t let the low water level lull you into a false sense of security.

An easy sign of sharks to watch out for is the presence of other animals. I know it’s hard to stay back when you see a bunch of fish in the water (as a Marine Biologist, I can be guilty of not staying away from schooling fish), but sharks enjoy snacking on large groups of fish. We wouldn’t want you to end up a morsel in the shark’s buffet.

However, we can’t always see schooling fish. Don’t worry too much since there are more obvious signs you can watch out for including: birds, dolphins/porpoises and lots of splashing. Birds will attack schools from the air, so if you see many birds diving in a particular spot, you can safely assume there are fish there and will want to stay away from that location. Same with dolphins and porpoises. They eat a lot of the same foods that sharks eat, so do not assume there are no sharks just because you see dolphins.  Splashing is also a key sign to sharks that prey is in the area since schools of fish tend to ascend and splash around near the surface. So, again, stay away from areas that show signs of splashing, and it’s also a good idea to keep your splashing around to a minimum.

7) Know your local sharks

It’s also good to know your local sharks. The Gulf of Mexico is home to many different species, some sharks you might not see — much less have to worry about. Others, like the Bull shark account for all of the Texas deaths from sharks (don’t be too alarmed, again, there have only been 2 since 1911). We also have thresher (my personal favorite shark), nurse, blacktip, tiger, many different hammerhead species, and many more.

If you followed the news this summer, you might have seen a White Shark named Katherine approaching Texas. Katherine shows us that we can get Great White Sharks in the Gulf. For more information on Katherine and many other tagged sharks you can go to OCEARCH.org. If you are travelling and plan on going to the water, it’s helpful to know what sharks are in the area and how likely your are to see them.

In the long run, it’s important to remember that shark interactions are NOT common, you just want to be prepared and armed with knowledge whenever you hit the beach.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is teaming up with the Texas State Aquarium and OCEARCH to bring more information and awareness of sharks to Houston with our new SHARK! exhibit

Come visit to learn about (and even touch!) these amazing animals starting August 29!

Animal-eye view: Q&A with Crittercam inventor Greg Marshall

Greg Marshall

Greg Marshall, with the latest
incarnation of CritterCam.

Crittercam, a new exhibit at The Woodlands Xploration Station, takes visitors underwater with whales, across the Serengeti with lions and over the Antarctic glacier with penguins. Its unique animal-eye view gives us an unprecedented look into animal behavior – and the world they live in.

Greg Marshall is a scientist, inventor and filmmaker who has dedicated the last 20 years to studying, exploring and documenting life in the oceans. Funded by the National Geographic Society, philanthropic foundations and U.S. federal grants, Marshall created CritterCam not only as a scientific tool, but also a major collaborative research program engaging scientists worldwide. Over the last 15 years Marshall’s Remote Imaging Program has collaborated with over 30 scientific groups on over 50 different species.

Here, Greg answers a few of our questions about this amazing technology.

1. What inspired you to create Crittercam? Has it lived up to your expectations – or perhaps gone in a different direction from what you originally expected?

In 1986 I was diving off the coast of Belize for my graduate work when I encountered a shark.  The shark sidled up and casually swept around me before disappearing back into the mist, but in that brief encounter I noticed a remora suckled to its belly. 

In that moment it occurred to me how extraordinary it would be to be that remora and ride along with the shark.  I imagined that a small camera in a streamlined housing could mimic the remora and allow me to vicariously observe the sharks behavior and ecology over time and through that alien space without the disturbing presence of a human observer. 

I had just built an underwater housing for a small camcorder and proceeded to reconfigure it into the closest thing to an electronic remora I could devise.  The resulting package looks like a monstrosity today, but when I strapped it to a captive turtle in a tank, the turtle simply ignored its backpack and behaved normally.  This was the important test that showed me the concept had merit.

Honu
Creative Commons License photo credit: modean987

I wrote a concept paper of the different components my electronic remora should have and over the years, continuously strived to make the package smaller, lighter and more powerful.  Now, more than twenty years later, my electronic remora has shrunk to about the size of a flashlight.  It can withstand pressures of 1,000 meters, is controlled by a sophisticated onboard microprocessor and is capable of recording a suite of environmental and geospatial data.  Collaborating with experts around the world, my team and I have deployed Crittercams on over 50 marine species.  So, it has lived up to my expectations in many ways.

In other ways, it has surpassed them.  I conceived of Crittercam as a scientific tool, a way of studying animal behavior in places people access.  What I didn’t expect was the tremendous attraction the resulting images hold for people.  Every time we deploy, Crittercam brings home the animal’s point-of-view… a perspective that allows people to connect with the animal and its struggles to survive.  It’s this empathic experience that I didn’t necessarily expect when I invented Crittercam and that we have been able to share through many National Geographic films – and the Crittercam exhibit.

Crittercam Penguin

A penguin shows off his Crittercam.

2. What was the biggest challenge you faced in developing Crittercam? Are there particular animals that take to wearing the cameras better than others? What animals presented the biggest challenges?

Initially, the biggest challenge was to convince anybody that the concept had merit.  I had the initial inspiration in 1986 and at the time video cameras were relatively huge.  Whenever I would talk about the idea, people would look at me like I was nuts.

Wild animals don’t seem to react to the systems…I think they are simply too busy dealing with much more significant things that impact their lives, like finding food, avoiding predators or engaging in mating activity.  But some species are easier to work with than others.  Sharks and whales, for example, never leave the water and therefore the challenge lies in finding them, approaching them and encountering them long enough to attach a Crittercam.  Seals, turtles and penguins make it somewhat easier since they return to land to raise their young, so we can wait for them to come to us.

The hardest animals we have deployed Crittercam on are leopard seals.  These are large, predatory seals that live in the Antarctic pack ice.  They are solitary and widely spaced, so they are hard to find, hard to approach, hard to sedate and just plain hard to work with.  It took us six months to conduct one deployment.  But despite the challenge, leopard seals also embody the reason we do this work:  their world is melting, yet we do not know the simplest things about them. 

We are changing this planet, we need to understand the impact our behavior has on the creatures we share this planet with so we can protect their future – and our own.

3. What contributions has Crittercam technology made to our understanding of animal behavior? What is the most surprising thing you have discovered through the use of this technology?

Collaborating with scientists around the world, we have deployed Crittercams on whales, sharks, sea turtles, seals, penguins, sirenians and fish.  We’ve also now evolved the concept from sea to land and have worked with lions, tigers and bears. 

Crittercam Lion

A leash with a lens: Crittercam on a female lion.

What the system captures during deployment on wild, free-ranging animals is data from the animal’s point of view, insights into their fundamental behavior and ecology.  This data helps us to understand how the animals function in their environment.  We publish in peer-reviewed journals, and our papers are read by like-minded scientists who can use these published results to help impact management decisions.

In an ongoing research collaboration with NOAA we discovered the endangered Hawaiian monk seals‘ critical foraging habitat.  Not only did we capture animal-borne imaging data that fundamentally changed our understanding of the animal and what it needs to survive, but as a by-product of the research we produced the PBS Special “Hawaiian Monk Seals:  Surviving Paradise”, raising awareness about an endangered species few people even know exist.  In collaboration with SCRIPPS, we deployed Crittercams on emperor penguins and experienced – for the first time ever – how they hunt and feed under the ice.  We told that story in “Emperors of the Ice”, another PBS Special, and used some of these same images in the Oscar winning feature film “March of the Penguins.”  These and our other films are geared for a lay audience but carry a strong conservation message. 

Our ultimate objective is to inspire people to care… because that is, after all, the only way we’ll ever do the hard work of conversation. 

4. How does the technology continue to develop, and what kind of testing is involved? Are there any animals that could not wear Crittercam? How did you make sure that the cameras are safe for animals to wear?

As technology progresses so does Crittercam.  I have a dedicated team at National Geographic and we are constantly working to make the systems smaller, more robust and more powerful.  The smaller the package, the smaller the species we can work with.  The more data we can record, the more we learn about the animals. 

Before we ever deploy systems on animals, we need to test them.  As a matter of principle, we thoroughly test each system comprehensively on the bench before deploying on an animal.  My lab at National Geographic has a pressure chamber, so we can ensure the system integrity down to 3000 meters.  After the systems pass the bench and lab tests, we can start deployments on animals in controlled settings.  One of my favorite test subjects is my six-year old son, Connor.  He is a young, active mammal and loves to put new Crittercams through their paces.  You can check him out on the National Geographic Kids site under “Connorcam.” 

When I deployed that first Crittercam prototype on a turtle, I had no idea whether it would be safe for the animal or not.  I didn’t know what her reaction would be and was prepared to remove the system immediately if she seemed disturbed.  But she didn’t seem to react at all.  With every new species we work with, we have to make this same assessment. 

The good news is that I’ve been developing animal-borne imaging for over 20 years now.  There were many things I didn’t know when I started out and that I had to learn by just doing and either failing or succeeding.  Over the years, my team and I have built on those experiences and today’s systems and deployment methods are based on principles we proved along the way.

Dragonfly

Coming soon to Crittercam: bugs-eye view.
Creative Commons License photo credit: HVargas

At the moment, some species are still too small to carry Crittercam.  I’d love to deploy on smaller penguins, but to accomplish that we’ll have to shrink the system more.  People also keep asking about insect cams.  Same story there – it’ll just take time, but it will happen and it will be an amazing perspective. 

5. What do you hope people will discover at the Crittercam exhibit?

I hope people will discover and be as excited as I am about this new perspective on the world.  We are more and more isolated from the wild and the fact that we share this planet with many other living things.  Crittercam provides a connection to other creatures, a way of seeing the world from an animal’s point of view.  I hope people who visit the exhibit will learn something about animals and the challenges they face, but first and foremost I hope they’ll discover in themselves an empathy with these animals as they swim with sharks, dive with whales and stalk with lions.  And I hope this experience can help spark an inspiration to care and conserve these animals and the habitats they depend on and call home.

Greg Marshall is a two-time Emmy Award winner for cinematography and sound, for the National Geographic Specials “Great White Sharks” (1995) and “Sea Monsters: Search for the Giant Squid” (1999). He has created, produced or executive produced more than 70 natural-history-themed conservation films. See the results of his groundbreaking research in Crittercam, now on display at The Woodlands Xploration Station.

Science Doesn’t Sleep (5.12.08)

Aquarium
Does this grass make my fins look fat?
Creative Commons License photo credit: Jimmy theSuperStar

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