MSc Graduate in Focus: Phil Doherty

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Phil Doherty, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2011) and now a Post Doctoral Research Associate with the University of Exeter!

 

Hi Phil! First off, why don’t you tell us what you are up to now and how you got there?

Upon finishing my MSc I was offered a short-term contract (3 months) in Penryn as a field assistant analysing video data captured from Baited Remote Underwater Videos (BRUVs) at renewable energy testing sites. This turned into a longer contract (18 months) continuing to develop methodology and analysis of the BRUV project. During this time I was part of applying for funding with the Scottish Government to satellite track basking sharks with the aim of designating a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in Scottish waters. This bid was successful and became my PhD. I completed my PhD in 2017 and worked short-term on a few ongoing projects within the wider ExeterMarine group as a research assistant before acquiring my current postdoctoral position. I have been very lucky in being given the chance to work on a wide range of projects and to be supported in roles within the research group.

It’s lovely to have you with us! What do you enjoy most about studying and working with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

The location itself is a massive draw. The campus and surrounding towns are very close to many beautiful beaches. I think the fact that the CEC is actively involved in cutting edge research is a huge plus in terms of conducting a masters within the department. This access to research groups and data makes for exciting projects from which to write your thesis. It can also provide opportunities to work on real data that may contribute to ongoing research projects on the whole. For me this was the best part of my MSc, conducting fieldwork with a NGO.

I was looking to broaden my skillset, but also be exposed to academic research. I was unsure of the exact route I wanted to take in the sector and so experience in different facets of research and research groups, NGO’s, consultancies etc. sounded like a good opportunity to find out which aspects suited me to pursue further.

The staff’s openness and willingness to engage and help throughout the course was great, it felt like they cared and wanted you to succeed. The fieldcourse to Kenya was an obvious highlight. It was great to learn about current conservation issues and how those working in the field are attempting to manage and mitigate these issues.

How did the MSc help you in your career, and do you have any advice for students looking to pursue a similar career?

It turns out research was the element I enjoyed most, and so the time to be able to conduct a thesis was the highlight of the course for me, but also the part which best set me up to pursue the next phase of my career. I was lucky enough to get a position with a NGO working on various aspects of applied marine conservation. Using a long-term dataset and ground-truthing results in the field provided me with many skills in which I would need to progress.

I chose to pursue applied marine ecology and conservation as a career as I’ve always been fascinated with the ocean and the animals living within it – especially when and where animals move to/from. I also feel the knowledge gained on species should be used to some extent to help update or inform other knowledge gaps and this is a great avenue for that.

 

Finally, Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying to any of our programmes at the University of Exeter?

I would think about what you would like to get out of obtaining a masters, and how it might shape the next move you make. Do some research, contact members of staff to enquire about ongoing research and opportunities. Treat it like a job and make the most of the expertise and experience on offer.

 

Thanks Phil!

You can see what Phil gets up to at the University of Exeter at his Profile and you can follow him on Twitter!

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

MSc Graduate in Focus: Tommy Clay

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Tommy Clay, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2012) and now working as a post doc investigating the environmental drivers of sea bird movements at the University of Liverpool!

Hi Tommy! First off, why don’t you tell us what attracted you to study your MSc at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus?

I was attracted specifically to the course and the location, but the University has really risen up the league tables in the last decade, in part due to the recognition that high student satisfaction is important for a University to flourish. The CEC has really become an international hub for behavior, ecology and conservation science, and has attracted a dynamic group of staff and students. The courses are lively and varied with a mixture of lectures, practicals, field courses, presentations and group discussions, which facilitates learning.

The dynamic interactions between staff and students at the University, local industry and NGOs make it a global center for marine research. This is demonstrated by the fact that ExeterMarine has been a great success.

Penryn is well set-up to host students and has great facilities and decent transport links. Falmouth, where most of the students live, is a pretty fishing town turned student village, so has a good array of bars and pubs (and when I was there, one club!).

So, what did you enjoy most about studying your MSc?

I have many fond memories from my year at the University of Exeter Penryn Campus. Cornwall is one of my favorite places and a fantastic place to live, especially if you enjoy being near the sea and surrounded by nature. Plus, I was lucky to have a fun cohort of course mates.

For me, there were two standout highlights. The field course to Kenya was great fun – to be able to learn about conservation issues while going on safari every day was really special. For my research project, I spent three months in Peru as a research assistant for the marine conservation NGO ProDelphinus, who work with local communities to promote sustainability of Peruvian small-scale fisheries. The hosts were extremely hospitable and I got to see how a conservation NGO is run, both from the office and in the field. It was an invaluable experience, and one which cemented my passion for marine ecology and conservation.

How did the MSc help prepare you for your career in research?

The course gave me a good overview of topics in conservation, potential career paths, and skills for a career in research or management of wildlife. In particular, skills in programming and statistics are increasingly important for ecological research and the course provides a great opportunity for students to develop these skills.

Carrying out literature reviews and presentations helped develop skills in processing large amounts of information and presenting it to audiences in a clear manner, something which is useful for a wide range of jobs. More specifically, developing proficiencies both in GIS and statistics in R (a programming software) are incredibly useful for a career in environmental management, whether directly involved in research or not.

To pursue a career in research or academia, I think the most important thing is to have an inquisitive nature. A PhD is hard work and requires a lot of perseverance, so it’s important to choose a topic you’re really passionate about and can get regular enjoyment out of.

Don’t be afraid of rejection and try and put yourself out there. If you want to work with someone, send them an email detailing your skills and interests, as they may have opportunities going that are not advertised. It’s a competitive field and a lot of success is based on luck. However, if you can create opportunities for yourself you’re more likely to get that lucky break.

Finally, Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying to any of our programmes at the University of Exeter?

Go for it!

Thanks Tommy

 

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

MSc Graduate in Focus: Victoria Warwick-Evans

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Victoria Warwick-Evans, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2010) and now working with the British Antarctic Survey as a marine spatial analyst!

Hi Victoria! First off, why don’t you tell us what you are up to now and how you got there?

I am currently a marine spatial analyst postdoc at the British Antarctic Survey. After graduation I was an intern on the Red Sea Dolphin Project, where we surveyed the distribution of dolphins in the red sea. Subsequently, I worked in sea turtle conservation for a company called SAS Tartarugas in Cape Verde. I then volunteered with a group called Southwest Whale Ecology Study, tracking humpback whales using a theodolite in order to understand their migration along southwest Australia. After this, I used the marine mammal observer qualification that I gained whilst completing my masters at Exeter, to work as a marine mammal observer for Gardline. During this position I gained my seabirds at sea qualification, and subsequently went on to complete a PhD in seabird ecology at the University of Liverpool. Finally I accepted a post-doc at the British Antarctic Survey and have been here for 3 years.

What did you enjoy most about studying your MSc with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

The highlight would have to be the field course to Kenya, but I also enjoyed the marine mammal observer course that qualified me to work as a marine mammal observer, and trained me in the identification of marine mammals. The course was carried out on the ferry to Bilbao, so we had a great opportunity to learn from experience.

I was also particularly impressed with the R course, and how well statistics was made accessible to ecologists. I found the modules on specific skills (such as wildlife photography, website design) really important too.

I loved living in Cornwall, there is such a variety of both marine and terrestrial environments to explore both during university courses, and during my own time. The staff in the department were very helpful and supportive, and easy to approach and chat to both academically, and socially.

Finally, why did you choose your career path and do you have any advice for those looking to pursue something similar?

I chose to study ecology and conservation as I am inspired by the natural world, and think that conservation is vital for its protection. I stayed in academia because I enjoy the research aspect. I particularly like developing an idea, carrying out fieldwork and analysis, and the satisfaction when the work is published.  I think that the statistics course, and public speaking events during the MSc were of significant importance to my career and for job applications.

It is important to get experience, so volunteer wherever you can. Decide which aspect of the work you enjoy the most and try to get experience in that area.

Thanks Victoria!

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

MSc Graduate in Focus: Megan Chevis

This year we are launching a new MSc in Marine Vertebrate Ecology and Conservation and applications are open now for 2020 start. We are looking back on some of our MSc graduates who have excelled in marine vertebrate ecology and conservation around the world since studying with us.

Today we meet Megan Chevis, MSc Conservation and Biodiversity graduate (2015) and now working as the National Coordinator for MarAlliance in Panama!

Megan Chevis                                                                        Photo Credit: Pete Oxford/MarAlliance

Hi Megan! First off, why don’t you give us a bit of background about what made you choose to study your MSc with us at the University of Exeter Cornwall Campus?

After learning about the MSc course offered at the Penryn campus and seeing the type of research being conducted by the students and staff in the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, I knew the program was perfect as a stepping stone for where I wanted to go and the type of career I wanted to pursue. It offered access to all the resources I would need as a student and a scientist, all while set in a beautiful location.

As an international student with limited knowledge of the UK, I was pleasantly surprised when I started researching Penryn and Cornwall while I was considering the MSc program. As someone who loves nature, hiking, and being in and near the sea, the Penryn campus was THE best place for me to study while also enjoying all the natural beauty that southern England had to offer. The multiple activities and events hosted by student groups helped me make the most of my time there.

 

You mentioned you saw the MSc as a stepping stone to your career, how did the MSc help prepare you for your career in Marine Wildlife Conservation?

There are many skills that I developed at Exeter that I currently use on a regular basis and that I know will continue to serve me in the future. Skills such as GIS mapping, data analysis using R, grant writing, public speaking, and scientific writing have been invaluable for my career so far. My time spent in the field course in Kenya strongly shaped my perception of wildlife conservation and initially taught me that wildlife conservation is all about humans. What I learned from communities and organizations in Kenya about human and wildlife conflict, natural resource use, and development are completely relevant to the work I do now concerning marine resources, artisanal fisheries, and coastal habitats in Central America.

 

While my work now more often involves working with humans (or at the computer!) than in the ocean, my passion for my work is renewed whenever I get to be in the field and interact with the animals that initially made me fall in love with the sea. The field of marine conservation can become quite heavy at times, and it can sometimes be difficult to know that you are actually making a difference in the right direction. One of the most instantly rewarding parts of the work I do is our environmental education program, where I talk to primary school kids about sharks and rays and sometimes take them into the field. Seeing the perceptions of kids change and hearing how many of them become inspired to be marine biologists helps make the struggles easier. To be successful in this field you must accept that, if you want to ensure a future for wildlife, you also have to ensure a future for the human populations that depend on them.

 

Finally, Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying to any of our programmes at the University of Exeter?

Do your research ahead of time to make sure the program and university are a good fit for you and your goals, but I think you will find that Exeter and its MSc program stand apart from the rest in terms of all that they offer for individuals wanting to pursue a career in marine wildlife research and conservation. Be prepared to work hard and push yourself outside of your comfort zone.

I would also advise to take advantage of the resources you have while at Exeter and gain as many varied skills and experiences as you can. The university and its staff have so much to offer. Even though you may think you know what kind of work you want to do after graduating, having a well-rounded resume and transferable skills will open you up to many more opportunities.

Thanks Megan!

Photo Credit: Pete Oxford/MarAlliance

If you want to find out more about any of our suite of #ExeterMarine Masters and Undergraduate courses use the links below!

A Field Season of Basking Shark Research in the Sea of Hebrides 2019

This summer, a team from the University of Exeter have been on field work in the Inner Hebrides tracking and filming basking sharks! Read on to find out why…

Words by Owen Exeter, Christopher Kerry and Jessica Rudd.

Basking sharks are the world’s second largest fish and one of the UK’s most iconic marine species. Understanding the lives of these endangered fish is key to their conservation. Since 2012, researchers from the University of Exeter led by Dr Matthew Witt and Dr Lucy Hawkes in collaboration with Scottish Natural Heritage’s Dr Suzanne Henderson have been working in the Sea of Hebrides to understand how and why sharks use these coastal waters. This year the team are applying a variety of technologies to investigate the secret life of basking sharks below the surface.

Left: Dr Suzanne Henderson, Dr Lucy Hawkes and Dr Matthew Witt. Right: Image taken by REMUS.

Previously, most of our knowledge of basking shark spatial ecology and behaviour has relied on surface observations limited by daylight and weather conditions. With the recent advances of tracking technologies, we have gained unprecedented insight into their UK distribution, diving behaviour, long distance migration and inter-annual site fidelity. Satellite telemetry data acquired by the Exeter team have confirmed the waters off the Isles of Coll and Tiree as spatially important to the species (Doherty et al. 2017). These findings have directly informed conservation management with the proposed Sea of the Hebrides MPA currently under consultation.

Recently the team’s research has shifted to exploring whether the region has further significance to the species. Little is known about basking shark reproductive behaviour, fine-scale movement or habitat preference. 2017 saw the successful deployment of multichannel tags recording behaviour at the sub-second level (Rudd et al. in prep) and in 2018, custom made cameras designed by MR ROV started elucidating some of these questions. This year we were joined by a team from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) and their Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) REMUS, with further towed cameras to deploy and a sonar scanner to attempt to shed further light on the rarely seen secret life of basking sharks.

Field site: Isles of Coll and Tiree, Inner Hebrides, Scotland.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute REMUS

REMUS is an AUV, a two-meter-long submersible vehicle that is designed to record underwater footage without manual controls from the surface. This allowed us to conduct long deployments at distances of over 2km from our control boat. Developed by Amy Kukuyla and her team at WHOI, REMUS has previously been deployed to film white sharks, bull sharks and leatherback turtles at depth.

As REMUS relies upon a tracking beacon tag being attached to the sharks half our team set off early from Tobermory harbour to locate and deploy tags aboard vessel Bold Ranger. The control team, including WHOI staff, followed on Etive Explorer. We successfully deployed beacons on multiple sharks across several days. Once tagged, we launched REMUS which followed the sharks at predetermined distances for up to four hours each mission. REMUS has 5 frontal cameras with an optional rear camera allowing near 360 views to be captured and up to 24 hours of footage generated per mission. Members of the team are currently stitching these different camera views together for each mission to allow further processing and analysis of the footage.

Left: REMUS. Right: MR ROV towed camera.

Towed camera deployment

Last summer, the towed cameras revealed new and exciting footage, including the very first shark aggregation observed on the seabed. While basking sharks may aggregate at the surface to feed, it remains unclear why they may do so at depth. Wanting to build upon these initial findings and hope to uncover more novel behaviour, this year we set out to re-deploy three cameras for a longer duration. These tags encase a temperature-depth recorder tracking the shark’s movement throughout the water column while filming it with a rear and front facing camera attached just below the dorsal fin by a 1.5 m tether. A vital component to the tag package is the Programmed Time Release which enables us to set the time at which we wish the camera to pop off the shark after a desired period and an integrated satellite tag, allowing us to track the camera remotely once its antennae breaks the surface by relaying its position every hour.

Footage acquired from 2018 MR ROV towed cameras.

This season the team was again successful in deploying all three camera tags. Upon release we deployed a range of tech to help us successfully hone into the position of the cameras. Once arrived at its last known coordinates, we used a goniometer which gave an idea of the bearing of the camera in relation to the boat. Within a certain range a handheld VHF radio (above the surface) as well as a VEMCO acoustic pinger (underwater) provide extra confidence in the directionality and distance to our prized tags.

While two of the sharks remained close to Coll, the third shark swum towards the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, nearly 150km north of it’s initial attachment. After a stroke of luck, a skipper and boat were found to help locate the last tag, known as Mr ROV Green, but required us to leave Mull, cross the mainland and drive across Skye before being picked up by a rib to find the camera. With the final mission successfully completed and all three camera tags found, now comes the exciting part of reviewing footage from both the cameras and REMUS to discover what new behaviours may have been recorded, along with answering biologically important questions such as estimating feeding rates and tail beat frequencies, as well as possible interactions with other basking sharks.

Finally, we would like to say a big thank you to Matt, Lucy and Suz for their knowledge and support during this field season. Interacting with a range of field technologies and seeing our data feed directly into policy and management is an invaluable experience for early career researchers. This work wouldn’t be possible without their hard work and dedication. We would also like to extend our thanks to Sky Ocean Rescue, WWF and Scottish Natural Heritage for their support of the project.

If you would like to updates on the basking shark project and our team’s other research please follow via twitter: Owen @OExeter,  Chris @chriskerry1989  and Jess @jlrudd.

The team. Clockwise from top left: Dr Lucy Hawkes, Dr Matt Witt, Owen Exeter, Chris Kerry and Jessica Rudd

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

My Exeter PhD: Camouflage helps brightly coloured chameleon prawns to survive in the rock pools

Camouflage is vital to an animals survival, blending in to the background can stop you being spotted by predators or conversely, allow you to sneak up on your prey. But how do animals that live in highly variable environments like rockpools, where the surrounding plant life and available hide-y holes can change from one tide to the next, stay camouflaged? One option to has a variety of colour morphs like the chameleon prawn found in UK rockpools, but what happens if you suddenly find yourself in a pool predominately full of green seaweed when you are bright red?

University of Exeter PhD student Sam Green tells us about his new paper with the Sensory Ecology Evolution Group, working to understand the drivers of variation in the chameleon prawn colour variation.

Words by Sam Green, PhD Student, University of Exeter.

Key findings: Brightly coloured and aptly named chameleon prawns (Hippolyte varians) combine impressive changes in colour with behavioural preferences for particular seaweeds to survive in their rock pool habitats.

Here in Cornwall we are lucky to have easy access to incredibly diverse rock pools around our coastline that are teaming with wildlife. One fascinating species dwelling amongst the seaweeds close to the low tide line is the chameleon prawn (Hippolyte varians). An apt name for a species that is highly variable in appearance and found in forms ranging from vibrant red and green colours to varying degrees of transparency and patterning1,2. But what is driving this remarkable variation?

 

Chameleon prawns (Hippolyte varians) are found in an incredible diverse range of vibrant colour forms in UK rock pools.

Rock pools are extremely beautiful and colourful environments but they are challenging to live in.  Every day the tides’ ebb and flow, which changes the availability of submerged habitat as well as the varieties of predators that range over the rock pools looking for an easy meal. Could this variation in colour help prawns to avoid the interests of hungry fish? One possibility is that prawn coloration provides camouflage against their seaweed substrates. But how can they maintain this camouflage when the rock pool environment is so variable and always changing?

Natural habitats comprise many potential background colours, posing a challenge for any animal that relies on camouflage – such as this array of seaweeds in a rock pool.

One remarkable camouflage strategy that might be used is for an animal to change body coloration itself. This is surprisingly common in the natural world with the duration of change ranging from a few seconds to weeks and months3. The well-known masters of this strategy include octopus and cuttlefish, where many are capable of swift changes to their coloration enabling them to quickly tailor their camouflage to the surroundings4. Might chameleon prawns also utilise colour change to better match their surroundings?

In our research we have focused on green and red chameleon prawns and their seaweed substrates, the green sea lettuce and red dulse. We brought prawns and seaweed into the lab and housed the prawns on seaweed of opposing coloration. Then, analysing coloration of prawns and seaweed from the perspectives of predatory fish visual systems, we measured changes in colour in relation to camouflage.

 

Chameleon prawns were kept individually on seaweed of mismatching coloration in the lab to induce colour change.

Prawns have an excellent level of camouflage against their associated substrate types. They are also capable of impressive, if somewhat slow, colour changes that drastically improve camouflage against the previously mismatching seaweed over a number of weeks. So the prawns can change colour, but it’s clearly too slow to maintain camouflage when swimming around the rock pools. The seaweeds that comprise the ‘algal forests’ of the intertidal zone vary with the seasons5. These slower colour changes probably enable prawns to capitalise on seasonal seaweed shifts, whilst still benefiting from the protection of camouflage. If this is the case, how do the prawns maintain camouflage on a day-to-day basis?

Examples of the remarkable changes in colour displayed by green and red prawns over the 30 day experiment.

Animals often improve their camouflage through behaviour, such as choosing appropriate backgrounds that maximise their camouflage6.  Again using the same two species of seaweed we tested the behavioural preferences of green and red chameleon prawns. The prawns display strong behavioural preferences for selecting a background that best compliments their own coloration. So, whilst colour change may be of no use if a passing wave were to dislodge a prawn from its chosen camouflaged perch, they are able to quickly rectify the issue by swimming to the nearest patch of suitable seaweed.

The behavioural choice chamber used in our study. Here a red prawn chooses between suitable seaweed backgrounds.

The act of remaining camouflaged is rarely as simple as it first appears. The incredible variation in body coloration displayed by chameleon prawns enables the highest level of camouflage against particular seaweed backgrounds. On top of that the prawns display clear adaptations for remaining obscured in their environment, despite the challenges presented by their rock pool existence. For the chameleon prawns, our research shows that perhaps the best way of maintaining camouflage in the face of variation is to have a suite of strategies to suit the occasion.

Chameleon prawns are extremely well camouflaged against their favoured seaweed backgrounds. As seen here with green prawns and green sea lettuce.

Read the paper here

You can follow Sam on Twitter: @saunteringsam and Instagram: @saunteringsam

You can also keep up to date with the Sensory Ecology and Evolution Lab on Instagram: @See_research_lab and Facebook

References:

  1. Gamble, F. W. & Keeble, F. W. Hippolyte varians: a Study in Colour-change. Q. J. Microse Sci. 43, 589–703 (1900).
  2. Keeble, F. W. & Gamble, F. W. The colour-physiology of Hippolyte varians. Proc. R. Soc. London 65, 461–468 (1899).
  3. Duarte, R. C., Flores, A. A. V, Stevens, M. & Stevens, M. Camouflage through colour change : mechanisms , adaptive value and ecological significance. (2017). doi:10.1098/rstb.2016.0342
  4. Hanlon, R. Cephalopod dynamic camouflage. Curr. Biol. 17, 400–404 (2007).
  5. Dickinson, C. British Seaweeds – The Kew Series. (Eyre & Spottiswood, 1963).
  6. Stevens, M. & Ruxton, G. D. The key role of behaviour in animal camouflage. Biol. Rev. (2018). doi:10.1111/brv.12438

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

 

Shark Awareness Day: Plastic pollution – problematic for sharks and rays.

For Shark Awareness Day 2019 we have been chatting to a few of our elasmobranch (that’s sharks, skates and rays) researchers here the the University of Exeter! In this blog we talk to Kristian Parton one of our Masters by Research students based at our Penryn Campus. He has recently published his first research paper giving a global overview of shark and ray entanglement. Below he tells us about his research and what he has found.

Words by Kristian Parton, Masters by Research Student at the University of Exeter, Penryn Campus

Numerous shark populations around the world are under-threat from a variety human impacts, the most notable of these being overexploitation and bycatch. Plastic pollution and marine debris is also an ever-growing threat to species inhabiting the marine environment, having direct impacts on fish, sea turtles and marine mammals. There is little existing scientific knowledge on the impacts of marine debris on shark and ray species. Over the last year, I led a team of researchers from the University of Exeter seeking to investigate the impacts of anthropogenic (human-made) marine debris on elasmobranch populations across the globe. Our literature review was published this week in Endangered Species Research, in which we used novel data collection from social media site “Twitter”, as well as pre-existing data in the scientific literature. We discovered that the threat of marine debris to sharks and rays is likely underreported and is without doubt of clear animal welfare concern, although it is unlikely to have wide-ranging detrimental population level effects.

We managed to identify that “ghost fishing gear” was the category of marine debris responsible for entangling the majority of elasmobranchs. Ghost fishing gear is fishing equipment that has been discarded or lost at sea, and is distributed by ocean currents and winds. Ghost gear indiscriminately catches and kills a host of marine life, including sharks and rays.  We also discovered the majority of entangled individuals were found in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, although recommend that more research should also be conducted in the Indian ocean – a known hotspot for elasmobranch biodiversity. In the scientific literature the most common entangled species were lesser spotted dogfish and spiny dogfish, two species regularly found off the coast of Cornwall. We highlight that sharks and rays who have specific habitat niches (e.g. those that inhabit the seafloor or species that occupy open ocean habitats), as well as those who display migratory movements may be at higher risk of entanglement in marine debris.

This Short-fin Mako Shark has been entangled in fishing rope which has caused scoliosis (deformation) of its spine. Image by Daniel Cartamil

By using a novel method of data collection via social media site “Twitter”, we were able to identify several different species of shark and ray that were a victim of entanglement, but weren’t found as entangled in the scientific literature. This included whale sharks, basking sharks and oceanic white-tip sharks. Twitter also highlighted additional entanglements hotspots that again weren’t displayed in the scientific literature.

Although not one of the major threats to sharks and rays, entanglement in marine debris still presents a risk to elasmobranchs, particularly from an animal welfare perspective. With further research on the topic, it could be revealed that this is occurring at far higher levels than we have reported. Social media has now become integrated into today’s society, so using it in a positive way to help reveal additional entanglement reports is a real bonus. With millions of users, the global reach of social media is unprecedented and scientists could now start to tap into the virtual databases that exist on the web.

From this research, we have set up an online entanglement report form in collaboration with the Shark Trust. This will allow citizen scientists across the globe to submit their shark and ray entanglement sightings, and will significantly help scientist further quantify this risk to ever declining elasmobranch populations.

Follow Kris on Twitter.

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Shark Awareness Day: Eye of the Tiger – Conducting Landing Surveys in Sri Lanka

For Shark Awareness Day 2019 we have been to talking to some of our elasmobranch (that’s sharks, skates and rays) researchers! Here, University of Exeter PhD student Claire Collins tells us about her research in Sri Lanka working to understand the shark fishery there so we can better manage them.

Tiger shark awaiting sale by shark traders in the early morning

Words by Claire Collins, University of Exeter PhD student.

I am 2nd year PhD student studying the socio-economic context of pelagic fisheries in Sri Lanka and India, specifically distant water vessels that target sharks (along with other large pelagics). As part of my research I will study the socio-economic value chains associated with sharks, the spatial movements of vessels and the perceptions of fishers with regards to national and international conservation regulations. To do this I will use a variety of methods including landing surveys, focus groups, household surveys and observational data. It is hoped that at the end of the project we can understand more about what motivates fishers to target sharks in distant water areas and how policy and management can be improved to benefit fishers’ livelihoods and shark populations.

Sharks are threatened globally by both targeted fisheries and through accidental capture in other large pelagic fisheries. Understanding the impact of anthropogenic activities is important and relies on accurate landings and discards data. However, for many fisheries globally the status of sharks as bycatch, and the difficulties in identifying them to a species-level means that we don’t have a clear idea of levels of fishing. The Indian Ocean has been identified as an area where populations of sharks are particularly poorly understood. As part of my PhD project I will be focusing on collecting data on landings and discards of sharks, as well as fishers perceptions of their livelihoods as shark fishers and how management and regulations effects them. One way to collect this data is through landing surveys in markets. These surveys are dual purpose for us, as we are able to collect landings data (including information on price and who is buying them) and we also get to speak to people whose job it is to understand shark movements and populations; the fishers!

Fishers with sharks caught incidentally during fishing for large pelagics such as Tuna and Billfish

Market surveys are not for the faint-hearted as they are frantic, start incredibly early (3AM at one of our sites) and the resulting smell means researchers are often unsuitable for travelling on public transport/sitting in cafes afterwards! Upon arriving at the markets researchers familiarise themselves with fishers and traders and look out for the first landings of the day. In order to understand value chains associated with sharks the team collect weight and price information for each species of shark landed that day, along with the details of which individuals are selling and buying them. Sales are conducted quickly and sharks often disappear seconds after being offloaded, therefore researchers need to be quick and rely on their good relationships with traders and buyers. Within Sri Lanka shark fisheries are considered zero wastage, therefore the team has to collect price and weight data for the sales of meat, fins, liver, teeth/jaws and skin as well as whole sharks.

Meat and fins are separated for sale on the market side.

Our research team also conduct questionnaires with fishers that are landing to the markets on the subject of their fishing behaviours, attitudes towards sharks and the economics of their recent trip. These surveys are conducted by researchers with the captains of the vessels, often in the wheel-house, and tablets are used to help speed up recording and analysis. By combining data from both types of surveys, as well as interviews with other individuals such as shark traders, we can map out socio-economic reliance on shark resources. This will help us to understand likely impacts of changes in management and policy interventions on a national and international level. It could also offer policy-makers an insight into how fishers see their industry and livelihoods and what is important to them for the future.

Fishers are regularly gone for trips of over 2 months

All images taken by the author. This work is supported by the Bertarelli Foundation as part of the Bertarelli Programme in Marine Science and is conducted in partnership with the Zoological Society of London.

You can follow Claire on Twitter.

 

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

Investigating Coral Reef Acoustics to Aid Reef Restoration

Words by Ben Williams, 2019 BioScience Graduate

Most people are aware coral reefs throughout the world are struggling one way or another. A range
of issues are responsible including overfishing, pollution and climate change induced bleaching to
name a few. However, coral reef communities provide valuable ecosystem services to a vast number
of individuals, it’s estimated One Billion people have some degree of dependence on these
ecosystems. With much of the world’s reefs degraded or lost it makes conserving those that remain
vital, and restoration of former reefs an important endeavour to many individuals.

The Marine Bioacoustics group in Exeter focuses much of their efforts on understanding the
soundscapes of coral reefs. These soundscapes encompass the entirety of the sound that can be
heard on particular spots of the reef and can be collected using underwater microphones we call
hydrophones. Emerging research suggests a lot can be determined about a reef from a few key
parameters within its soundscape which could be used to indicate the health of the surrounding
reef. A great example is shown in the spectrograms below, where you can hear an audible difference
between the soundscape of a healthy reef and that of a degraded reef:

This short acoustic clip first plays us the buzz of a healthy reef, followed by the quieter setting heard on a degraded reef

A group of us from Exeter’s Marine Bioacoustics group are currently out in Indonesia exploring reef
acoustics further. We’re collaborating with a project set up by Mars™, who have been working on an
intuitive way to restore the reefs in South Sulawesi. They use two key methods in doing so, the first
is coral propagation, where small samples of coral are clipped off live colonies and transported
somewhere new where they grow back at a faster rate than if left on their original colony. The next
step is to attach these to a skeleton system they call ‘Spiders’, which provide a substrate for new
corals to colonise and elevate them slightly above the reef bottom to provide the water flow needed
to bring nutrients to the growing coral. The Mars™ project has implemented large areas of these
spiders around two islands off Makassar with an impressive degree of success in their ability to
restore the reef.

This photo shows some of the several month old spiders placed by the Mars™  team which are showing an impressive rate of growth.

Our team from Exeter is particularly interested in the difference between the soundscapes of healthy and degraded reefs. We’re visiting the Mars™ restoration efforts to help explore the differences in soundscapes between their restored sites, degraded sites and baseline healthy sites. The hope is that in the future we will be able to show restored sites match the soundscape of healthy sites, and a quantifiable difference between the restored sites and degraded sites will be observable. We’re trialing this out using hydrophones which we’ve been placing daily on different sites within the reefs to determine whether this is a feasible methodology in comparing the reef soundscape.

Ellie May deploying a GoPro to film our quadrat used for the underwater playback test.

We’re also exploring the possibility of using ‘soundscape enhancement’ to help fine tune the ecology of the reef at a local scale to bring about restorative impacts. This is a highly innovative approach in which submersible loudspeakers are placed on patches of degraded reefs where they play recordings that may help recovery of the reef. A proof of concept of this was only recently provided in a 2018 study authored by Tim Gordon, who is now leading the expedition out here in Indonesia, and other members of the
Marine Bioacoustics group. The study found that larval and juvenile recruitment was greater at sites where healthy reef noise was played compared to sites where degraded reef noise was played. The use of soundscape enhancement is therefore of a great interest to restoration programmes like Mars™ in Indonesia, and we’re also out here to help them investigate whether this could be a potentially useful tool for their restoration. This time we’re trialing playback methods that could be used to affect the ecology of adult fish within the reef, primarily regarding their grazing behaviour which is a key process in controlling algae overgrowth at degraded sites.

 

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!

A Day in the Life of a Marine Bioacoustics Intern

Words by Ellie May and Ben Williams, ExeterMarine Undergraduate Students

 

Hi there, this is Ellie May and Ben Williams giving you an update on our current trip to the Indonesian island of Sulawesi to assist Tim Gordon and Lucille Chapius in looking at the soundscapes of healthy and degraded reefs. We are currently based in the city of Makassar, where we take one of MARS symbioscience’s boat out to the islands of Bontasua and Badi to measure the acoustic complexity, richness and invertebrate snap rates of different spots around the reef. Our first day out on the islands consisted of observing and understanding the scale of restoration provided by MARS via their spider systems, in which they attach fragments of healthy reef colonies to a metal spider structure in order to promote growth in degraded areas. Our interest is understanding whether adult fish respond to the soundscapes of different reefs, and whether playing recordings of healthy soundscapes will increase not only the abundance of fish but also their rate of grazing.

The spider structures used by MARS to promote coral growth.

A typical dive day consists of being up at 7.30am to prepare our equipment and make any final adjustments before we head out to the islands at 9am. A member of the MARS team will take us to the relevant reef spot, where we deploy hydrophones to sample the baseline of the reef at various times of the day. GoPro’s are set up adjacent to the hydrophones in order to test the quality of sound they record in comparison to the hydrophones. Both Ben and I have our own side projects we are working on throughout the duration of our time here. I’m trying to prove that GoPro’s can be just as useful as hydrophones in recording reef soundscapes, which then allows any individual with access to a GoPro and free coding applications to discriminate between key components of sound, massively increasing the data sets researchers can use to measure reef health.

Our daily commute!

 

During our first week, our time was split between days in the water and daily trips to the local hardware stores in order to find extra bits of equipment we needed, and safe to say we had to be pretty inventive! However, as the days pass, we’re all getting into the swing of things and learning which tasks need prioritising and where we individually fit in to the project. During our days in the water we are constantly moving between locations to record as much as possible, as well as setting up quadrats to measure fish grazing rate in response to healthy reef sound played through our underwater speaker.

Part of our Speaker system that needs to stay dry!

 

We usually return to Makassar’s port by 5pm, cram all our equipment into a ‘Grab’ taxi and head back to our accommodation for a debrief and evening plan. Luckily as food is so cheap we tend to go out for dinner every night, and try to sample a mix of local Indonesian food as well as a few more Western cuisines. Gado-Gado is our favourite local dish and we have a tally of how many our team can eat within the approximate month we are all staying here, as this is the only vegetarian Indonesian dish we have found as of yet!

Ben setting up our hydrophone and GoPro system.

 

After supper and a debrief we get on with preparing everything for the next day in the field, whether that be making slight adjustments to the equipment to decrease set up time or cutting and editing our audio recordings to make the data analysis in the future a lot less time consuming. We tend to get relatively early nights here as everyone is usually shattered after a long day that is both mentally and physically taxing! Often in the evenings Ben and I reflect on how truly privileged we are to be able to learn about bioacoustics on such beautiful and diverse reefs, and be able to have a first-hand insight into the incredible work MARS are doing on coral restoration. To be able to see both the logistical planning and fieldwork skills it takes to organise and run such a project is amazing, especially as a current undergraduate. Observing the differences between the restored and untouched reefs really consolidates how important restoration projects are, and hopefully there is a much wider community finally realising that big changes are needed in order to save the biodiversity of our reefs.

#ExeterMarine is an interdisciplinary group of marine related researchers with capabilities across the scientific, biological,  medical, engineering, humanities and social science fields.

Find us on: Facebook : Twitter : Instagram : LinkedIn  

If you are interested in working with our researchers or students, contact Michael Hanley or visit our website!