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| | Earth on Mar 06, 2014

Shark studies go electronic

Shark-cams, sensors, electronic pills reveal sharks’ secrets.

Scientists at the University of Hawaii and University of Tokyo are gaining new insights into the movements and behaviors of sharks using video cameras and sensors attached to the animals. They’ve also started a project that examines eating habits of sharks and other top ocean predators like tuna using small instruments, electronic pills, that can be ingested by the creatures. Carl Meyer and Kim Holland, from the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, presented new findings of their research programs on 27 February, 2014, at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu.

Marine animals at the top of the food chain, like sharks, have a ripple effect across the entire marine ecosystem. There’s much left to be learned about them, and their effect on the food chain that could be used to guide conservation, resource management, and improve public safety.

Meyer, a researcher at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, said in a press release:

What we are doing is really trying to fill out the detail of what their role is in the ocean. It is all about getting a much deeper understanding of sharks’ ecological role in the ocean, which is important to the health of the ocean and, by extension, to our own well-being.

Meyer and his collaborators have captured images showing previously-unseen behaviors such as different shark species schooling together, interactions with other fish, and unusual movements such as looping repeatedly across the ocean bottom. They’ve learned that sharks spend more time actively swimming, instead of, as previously thought, gliding through water. Their data has also revealed that deep-sea sharks are slower swimmers compared to shallow-water shark species.

A compilation of video clips, from researchers at the University of Hawaii and University of Tokyo, showing shark behavior beneath the waves.

Meyer described their instruments as flight data recorders for sharks, commenting in the same press release:

They allow us to quantify a variety of different things that we haven’t been able to quantify before.

It has really drawn back the veil on what these animals do and answered some longstanding questions.

In an interview with Catherine Cruz of KITV4, an ABC affiliate in Honolulu, Meyer said that tiger sharks were feared even by other shark species in the wild.

It seems to be the case that nothing really seems to want to hang out with a tiger shark.

He told Cruz that video collected from a shark-cam showed sandbar, galapagos, and hammerhead sharks schooling together for protection.

So by being in a school of other sharks you decrease your odds of being the one that’s caught when a big tiger shark comes through and tries to eat one.

It [school of mixed sharks species] stays together throughout the day, but they gradually swim higher and higher in the water column like a tornado of sharks, until sometime in the later afternoon or evening they disperse and go off at night to do their own thing.

An instrument containing sensors and a video camera attached to a sixgill shark, attached by Carl Meyer and his team. Image courtesy of Mark Royer/University of Hawaii.

An instrument containing sensors and a video camera attached to a sixgill shark by Carl Meyer and his team. Image courtesy of Mark Royer/University of Hawaii.

Meyer and his colleagues also started a pilot program to study eating habits of sharks, tuna, and other top ocean predators using a small instrument that can be ingested, like an electronic pill, so data can be collected from inside the animal’s gut about what they eat, and how food is ingested and digested. He explained to KITV’s Catherine Cruz:

After a period to time they [electronic pills] are naturally regurgitated by the sharks, they float to the surface and we can collect them and download the information on them to see how often sharks have fed and also get a sense of how much they’ve been eating.

Bottom line: Using sensors and cameras that can be attached to sharks, and electronic pills that can be ingested to collect data from inside a shark’s digestive tract, scientists at the University of Hawaii and University of Tokyo are gathering new information about the movements and behaviors of sharks. Their latest findings were presented on 27 February, 2014, at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting in Honolulu by Carl Meyer and Kim Holland, researchers the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology.