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Internet heroes: 

Dr. Andy Nosal: Shark tracker extraordinaire

Doctor Andy Nosal is a marine biologist and leading expert in the behavior and ecology of sharks and rays. We caught up with him during Shark Summer, proudly sponsored by ESET, at Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego to talk about how he uses the internet to aid his shark tagging expeditions, and how we can use the web to find out more about the deep blue…

The majestic Leopard Shark

The majestic Leopard Shark

How did you come to be an expert in shark behavior?
I grew up in New Jersey, going to the beach quite a lot so I’ve always been interested in the ocean. I first became interested in sharks while studying at the University of Queensland in Brisbane. I actually got to see them first-hand while I was scuba diving and snorkelling. I was pleasantly surprised at how unafraid I was. They really weren’t that interested in me! When I came to San Diego for my PhD, I learned that there was a school of leopard sharks and nobody knew why they were there or what their movement patterns were. 

Is there a lot of research into sharks and rays?
Sharks and rays are surprisingly under-studied. A lot of animals, for example the leopard shark, aggregate; they school in large numbers and in these schools they’re mostly all pregnant females. You can imagine that they are particularly vulnerable to being overfished because they’re in such a high density. What does this do to their population? By understanding their movement patterns we can know how we can design a marine protected area, which is one of the conservation implications that comes from these tracking studies. 

Why are a lot of people scared of sharks?
Sharks have such a bad reputation and it’s not at all deserved. First of all there’s only a handful of species that could really do any harm to people, and that harm comes about because of their size and because of their aggressiveness. Humans are never on the menu, but unfortunately when you have sharks and people in the same environment, which is happening more and more, the potential for an accident is there. What I would like people to know is that there is huge diversity within the group that we call sharks… there’s over 400 different species, and more being described every year, and the vast majority of them are completely harmless to people. 

And rays?
Rays definitely don’t have the same sort of fearsome reputation that sharks do, and that’s mostly because they would never attack a human if unprovoked. The only time a ray would sting is if it felt threatened. For most species that stinging reflex is totally involuntary. In order for them to sting you basically have to step on their backs and that causes a reflex like when you hit your knee. For the most part ray stings are completely survivable. 

Andy-body

Dr. Andy Nosal with a leopard shark

How do you use the internet to study marine life?
One kind of tag we use is based on satellite telemetry. So we have the tag on the animal, and we may have it on there for, say, six months, recording all kinds of information. Then at the prescribed ‘pop off’ time, the tag is going to detach and float to the surface and start sending information to the satellite, which sends an email to us telling us the tag has popped off and the satellite starts trickling the information to us.

The other way that we use the Internet is for outreach. The Birch Aquarium does a lot of social media, so when there’s a big breakthrough or publication by a scientist they will send that information out. We maintain a website that explains different aspects of our research and to keep the public informed of what’s going on in their backyard, because all of our research is so local. 

Who should we follow on Twitter?
The Twitter Guru in our field is a guy called David Shiffman, he’s a PHD student at the university of Miami, a big part of his research is the social perception of sharks. He uses social media a lot and analyzes Twitter to see what kinds of words are being used to describe sharks. He does a lot of interesting work.

Find out more about Shark Summer 2014 by visiting here.

Shark Photo: evantravels/Shutterstock.com

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