Many pet owners insert chips in their dogs to track them in case of an emergency, but for James Sulikowski, tracking devices reach below sea level, expanding to also serve sharks.
ASU’s Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab, along with Shark Research at the University of Miami, is studying the movement of tiger sharks at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas to aid in their future conservation.
During an expedition in December 2019, they scanned five tiger sharks and captured ultrasound footage of an unborn tiger shark wiggling around inside its mother's womb.
The team was also able to insert a new device they had been developing to understand the migration of pregnant sharks and how to protect them.
The conservation lab moved to ASU’s West campus from the University of New England last December, a dry location that Sulikowski, professor and associate director in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, said posed no threat to the lab’s research.
“ASU offers a great opportunity for a home base that provides support resources,” Sulikowski said. “It was a good fit, because we do a lot of innovative things.”
Sulikowski sat on the edge of his seat in his office at ASU’s West campus as he spoke about the history of shark conservation. A picture of his three daughters stood propped up in a frame next to an array of shark teeth and jaws of various sizes.
Named for their signature color patterns, tiger sharks are a highly migratory species that Sulikowski said “could have multiple areas right around the world that are important to (them).” According to the Florida Museum of Natural History, these species are known to eat sea turtles, stingrays, sea birds, dolphins, squid, crustaceans and more.
Sulikowski said although researchers have long monitored the migration patterns of sharks using tracking devices, the lab is now attempting to combine these two practices, resulting in satellite tags.
“The coolest thing is that we are developing this new technology that will allow us to determine where (a pregnant shark) gives birth, and that’s the holy grail of shark research,” Sulikowski said, referencing the lack of knowledge on spaces that serve as nurseries for baby sharks. “A lot of these baby sharks are mobile and they want to give birth here, and they go 3 or 4 hundred miles to a location. We want to figure out where those places are so we can protect those places.”
Sulikowski said the process of inserting the radar does not require surgery, but rather a slim incision on the mother shark’s uterus.
The latest expedition was conducted by Sulikowski, two ASU students and Neil Hammerschlag, a marine biologist at the University of Miami.
Hammerschlag said historically, researchers had to kill and cut open a shark to find out if it was pregnant. Hammerschlag was already collaborating with Sulikowski on other projects when the two decided to focus their efforts on a noninvasive approach to researching shark pregnancy.
When asked why the team is concentrating on tiger sharks, Brooke Anderson, a graduate student studying math and natural sciences, said the highly migratory species serves as a gateway to endless research with and a greater understanding of other sharks.
“Just being able to identify specifically where and when pupping occurs is not always possible for certain pelagic species,” Anderson said. “We’re really opening our opportunities into research that has not been able to be done before.”
Pelagic sea creatures are coastal and oceanic fish categorized by the depth of water they inhabit.
Having grown up on the Florida coast, Anderson said she was always drawn to the ocean and worked with Sulikowski at the University of New England. She, along with a Ph.D. student on the team, followed Sulikowski to ASU to continue their studies and work on conservation.
Hannah Verkamp, a graduate student studying math and natural sciences and a research associate at the School of Life Sciences, said she is excited to combat the largest threats for tiger sharks: climate change and commercial fishing.
“We're really lucky to work in the Bahamas where sharks are federally protected. It's illegal to kill sharks in the Bahamas for any reason,” Verkamp said. “But the thing with tiger sharks is that they are really global animals; they make really large-scale migration. And what that means is that the sharks aren't necessarily spending their whole life in the protected waters of the Bahamas. So it is important to figure out how we can best conserve it throughout their life,” she said, referring to the team’s efforts to protect the areas where tiger sharks give birth.
Hammerschlag said tiger sharks were largely overfished in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and although they have been gradually recovering, he thinks it is important to study that growth and maintain their populations.
Sulikowski said that although the species is not on the list of endangered animals, conservation efforts for prevention purposes are always beneficial, and the findings of their current research can help aid other animals.
“We'd like to be able to perfect this technology on tiger sharks and then use it on some other species that are threatened that are in more need of help,” he said.
Verkamp said she feels lucky to be a part of research that can encourage the public to think about conservation in their daily lives.
“It's important to get the word out that we're doing this and keep (the public) involved throughout the process, because when people know about the subject, that's how they care about it,” Verkamp said. “It's really exciting to get to be part of a team that is so good at getting our work out there to the public so that people can follow along and learn about our research and hopefully do their part to conserve sharks in the future.”