SharkFest Star and FIU Scientists Talk Misconceptions About Sharks

A shark swims with its pup in the waters off of Bimini, Bahamas. (National Geographic/Duncan Brake) Photo taken from FIU Case Facebook page

Christopher Ramirez/Staff Writer

When it comes to these voracious predators of the sea, there’s quite a few misconceptions people commonly have about them including that they are constantly hunting and attacking their favorite prey: humans. 

Most of the myths surrounding sharks are about as harmful as they are common. For this reason FIU scientist and dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education, Mike Heithaus, sat with fellow shark specialists including Florida Atlantic Univeristy’s Biological Sciences professor, Stephen Kajiura to discuss the species for National Geographic’s SharkFest. 

Kicking it off with a discussion of the fear humans tend to have of sharks, Kajiura spoke about their behaviors as apex predators and most importantly their tendency to be in shallow waters. 

Phil Fairclough, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and moderator of the live event, pointed out how the idea of sharks in shallow water can draw a red flag for beach-goers in fear that they might become a shark’s next meal.

However, Kajura added that these sharks are usually avoiding being meals themselves so they swim in shallow waters to hide from bigger predators including killer whales and larger sharks.  

On the third day of SharkFest, Dr. Heithaus presented his Shark Bay Ecosystem project which showed the impact that sharks have on the ecosystem.

The project took place in Western Australia and showed how the presence of tiger sharks keeps turtles from eating away all the valuable seagrass beds.

Sharks control the population of their prey; consequently, the seagrass beds can flourish and provide oxygen to the ecosystem which leads to less competition and more opportunities for other animals to eat this seagrass. 

Dr. Heithaus along with FIU P.H.D. student Francis Farabough, explained their ongoing research under the Global FinPrint project and how their experiments show a correlation on the absence of sharks and how it can turn a coral reef system into a more algae-based system.

Research Specialist Kirk Gastrich, talked about how sharks will most likely go for the easy prey, despite the reward of having a larger prey at times. In other words, whatever is more accessible to the individual shark will become its prey. 

Kajura has been studying sharks that swim off the coast of South Florida and how they migrate down to Florida in the wintertime.

With the climate changing and temperature rising, Kajura has found sharks are migrating to places more up north as they find their ideal temperature higher up the continent.

As the top predators of their respective ecosystems one would assume that sharks don’t travel in groups, but Kajura has seen evidence of sharks sticking together for long-distance traveling.

FIU Assistant Professor Yannis Papastamatiou also adds that social groups are present with sharks, the key element to why is still unknown but it must be advantageous to the sharks lifestyle as Papastamatiou puts it. 

Papastamatiou is currently working with the Our Blue Planet project, a digital project created to get people talking about our oceans, to build better electronic tags in order to precisely record data from sharks.

You can watch the video cast here. For more content on sharks, you can catch Discovery Channel’s 2020 Shark Week starting this Sunday, Aug. 9 through Aug. 16.

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