New tech capable of remotely documenting the location and time of birth of shark pups has been hailed as a ‘holy grail’ that could help their conservation.
Three quarters of sharks species are at risk of extinction and up to 73 million sharks are being killed each year for their fins.
Sharks have a long gestation period, give birth to low numbers of pups who mature at a late age – all of which makes protecting numbers harder.
On top of that, their habitat is under threat and many of their preferred birthing areas are no longer safe.
So two marine ecologists, Professor James Sulikowski, from Arizona State University and Dr Neil Hammerschlag, from the University of Miami, have developed a device to track where sharks are giving birth.
Once habitats are discovered, efforts will be made to protect those areas, either by creating sanctuaries or expanding areas already set aside for this purpose.
‘If the mother sharks don’t have that suitable habitat, then their babies won’t be able to grow up. And if babies don’t grow up, we have no more sharks and literally, the ocean ecosystem would collapse,’ said Prof Sulikowski.
‘This novel, satellite-based technology will be especially valuable for the protection of threatened and endangered shark species, where protection of pupping and nursery grounds is a conservation priority.’
‘We’ve been trying to do this since we started studying sharks. This is our holy grail. We have really advanced shark science, 20, 30, 40 years,’ said Prof Sulikowski.
The new tech, described in the journal Science Advances, has been used on sand sharks, a scalloped hammerhead and a tiger shark, all highly mobile species.
The intrauterine satellite tag is called the birth-alert-tags (BAT) and has to be inserted into the pregnant shark.
The egg-shaped device, two inches long and one inch wide pops out along with the pups when the shark gives birth.
It floats to the surface and switches to transmitter mode sending messages announcing the time and location of the birth.
The BAT has already yielded remarkable results.
Where it was once assumed that sand sharks gave birth inland, the scientists have learned that they are most comfortable having their pups in abandoned shipwrecks on the ocean floor.
‘It was a total surprise. For most shark species we have no idea where they give birth or how far they must travel to habitats that are essential to their survival,’ said Prof Sulikowski.
‘We’ve had every sort of failure that can happen. We had battery failures. We had firmware failures, we had antenna failures.. I felt like giving up multiple times,’
‘But thanks to my co-author, Dr Neil Hammerschlag, we kept forging ahead and we didn’t give up. Honestly, it feels incredible to have created technology that is going to revolutionise the way that we study sharks.’
The aim is to eventually use the device all over the world to determine areas that are important to sharks and figure out how to protect them.
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