Researchers Tag Sharks to Study Breeding Habits

Brian Handwerk and Mark Holmes
National Geographic News
July 4, 2002

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The silence of daybreak is suddenly broken by scientist Wes Pratt's rousing rendition of A.E. Housman's Reveille, announcing the start of a new day for the team of shark researchers camping in the Florida Keys.

Tomorrow, when Pratt's research partner Jeff Carrier has wake-up-call duty, the dawn will likely be greeted by the less subtle sounds of a clanging iron skillet and ladle.

Carrier, a physiologist at Albion College in Michigan, and Pratt, a scientist with NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, have been coming to this remote site for 12 years to study nurse shark breeding habits.

This year they arrived, with monstrous piles of gear, on a boat aptly named the Tiburon—Spanish for shark. During the three-week expedition, the group has little contact with the outside world and must be totally self-sufficient. There's no electricity, and no fresh water other than what they've brought with them. Meals are freeze-dried, for there is no refrigerator, and the social life, while quite active for the breeding sharks, is virtually nonexistent for the research team.

No one minds the Spartan conditions. The group is focused on the task at hand—capturing nurse sharks in order to learn as much as they can about these top-of-the-food-chain predators.

Building a Shark Perch

Early each morning, the researchers, who also include Ed Heist, a geneticist at Southern Illinois University, and Mike Heithaus, a biologist with National Geographic's Remote Imaging Laboratory, power or paddle their way out to a three-level observation post made of metal scaffolding and set in the middle of a cove the nurse sharks use as a breeding ground.

Wide-brimmed hats and wetsuits are worn as protection from the sun. Wes Pratt looks more like a mime than a scientist because of the zinc oxide completely covering his face.

The researchers spend most of the day on the scaffolding, leaving only when lightning storms cause them to flee the metal structure for the safety of shore.

The height of the scaffolding and the crystal-clear waters of the cove allow the scientists to see the entire breeding ground from one perch. Even when there are no sharks around, there are always things to learn.

Continued on Next Page >>


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