Midwest shark scientist begins groundbreaking research on secret lives of sharks

By: Nick Whitney, Senior Research Scientist

We announced last fall, the arrival of Dr. Nick Whitney at Newport Aquarium. Read more here: Newport Aquarium announced Renowned Shark Scientist, Nick Whitney, joined the Newport Aquarium team.

From the time I was a young kid growing up in Michigan I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: a garbage man. What could be better than riding around on the back of a truck all day, wearing whatever you want, and playing your music at full blast?

As I grew up I tried various other jobs: I umpired softball but was always getting screamed at by half the people (the half that knew the rules). I worked construction for a while but accidentally shot my boss in the hand with a nail gun (he handled it well). I worked in an aquarium store but got fired for missing too much work (spring break trip to Florida).

With all of these career failures during high school, college seemed like a logical choice for me. I was intrigued by the work of Dr. Jeff Carrier, a professor at nearby Albion College (Albion, MI), who was studying sharks in the Florida Keys. A shark scientist in the Midwest? What a concept!

I had been fascinated with sharks all my life, and my experience in the aquarium industry (including breeding some endangered species in a series of tanks in my bedroom), made me the closest thing to a marine biology student that this professor could find at a small liberal arts college in Michigan.

Jeff took the time to meet with me and eventually invited me to come to Albion and help him with his shark research. It took me about half a second to accept this invitation, and as an undergraduate I spent three summers capturing, tagging, and tracking nurse sharks on their mating grounds in the Florida Keys. I had the time of my life – no one screamed at me, there were no nail guns, and my boss was the one sending me on spring break trips to Florida.

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Nick Whitney tags a nurse shark while on a tagging exhibition  in the Florida Keys, as an undergrad at Albion College. Photo Credit: Dr. Jeffrey C. Carrier

I learned how to handle myself on the water and how to handle sharks without getting bitten (most of the time). I also learned science skills that made me a good candidate for graduate school at the University of Hawaii.

Working in Hawaii for 8 years and Florida for another 7 after that put me on the front lines of shark research, and in the process I started learning how to use a new type of tag called an accelerometer.

These tags use the same sensors found in Fitbits, smartphones, and video game controllers to reveal fine-scale details about the secret lives of sharks. I’ll talk more about these cool tools/toys in an upcoming post.

It’s now 2017 and you can do whatever you want from almost anywhere! Take it from a shark scientist working for an organization in Boston, MA (New England Aquarium) living in Cincinnati, OH, working in Newport, KY, who still does much of his fieldwork in Florida. It sounds complicated, and it took some time to set up, but so far it’s fantastic.

My research now focuses largely on what happens to sharks after they are caught and released by fishermen. Our tags allow us to determine whether the sharks live or die, and how long it takes them to recover and start swimming normally again.

I’m also involved with exciting research on the behavior of sea turtles and other species, and all of my work involves a heavy logistical component. By that I mean we often have to design and build new tag packages for different projects. So I spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas on how we can combine different tags, how we can attach them to animals, and how we can get them back.

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This is one of the things I am excited to work on with my new colleagues at Newport Aquarium. I now have easy access to a number of different sharks and rays (and other species) just 20 minutes from my house. We will be taking advantage of this in the coming months by testing a number of different tag packages and attachment styles, some of which you may see on animals when you visit the aquarium.

The whole goal is to figure out the best way of attaching these tags so that they will stay on the animals without inhibiting them. This takes a lot of trial and error, so don’t be surprised if most of the tags you see are in various stages of falling off the shark. That means we’re learning!

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Photo Credit: Rob Nelson, UntamedScience.com

I’ll also be helping the biologists at Newport Aquarium to formalize and publicize some of the research they have already been doing over the past several years. This includes some groundbreaking work in breeding and rearing shark rays that reminds me a lot of my work with mating nurse sharks in the Keys. So exciting!

Now my kids get to come to Newport Aquarium almost weekly and are blown away by the place. They try very hard not to admit that their uncool dad has a cool job, but once they start walking through the exhibits they go bonkers. My 2 year old wakes up in the middle of the night and says, “Go see Dory?”

They may grow up to be garbage men, or umpires, or construction workers, or most likely some career that doesn’t even exist today. But if they decide to be shark scientists, they have every reason to believe they can do that from here, or anywhere in the country.

 

 

 

Newport Aquarium’s Sweet Pea, the First Documented Shark Ray to Breed in Captivity, Gives Birth to Seven Pups

Sweet Pea swims past two of her newborn pups.

Sweet Pea swims past two of her newborn pups.

NEWPORT, Ky. – In a historic biological achievement, Newport Aquarium announced Wednesday that Sweet Pea, the first documented shark ray to breed in a controlled environment, gave birth to seven pups on Friday, Jan. 24, 2014.

With Sweet Pea housed at an offsite facility in Northern Kentucky, the first pup arrived at 12:25 a.m. ET. A total of three females and three males survived the nearly five-hour birthing process, while a fourth female pup did not. Newport Aquarium now has 10 shark rays in all, which is the most in the world from any one institution.

Three high definition surveillance cameras were installed at the offsite facility earlier in the week to monitor Sweet Pea’s progress. With this technology, Newport Aquarium officials had the ability to remotely watch Sweet Pea online.

General Curator Mark Dvornak first noticed the pups at around 5:20 a.m. while checking the live video feed on his tablet from his home. He immediately sent an alert out to the rest of the husbandry staff and by 5:35 a.m. biologists were on site monitoring the six newborn pups.

“Seeing the live video feed of the small pups swimming around was a bit surreal this morning,” said Dvornak. “Racing into work, I felt a bit of trepidation too as I realized our seven-year dream of successfully breeding these wondrous creatures had become reality.”

After each pup went through a medical examination, they were all moved into a separate tank adjacent to Sweet Pea’s tank. The pups’ weight ranged from 2.1 to 2.4 pounds, while their length ranged from as long as 1 foot, 7.3 inches to as short as 1 foot, 6.4 inches.

A closeup of two newborn shark ray pups.

A closeup of two newborn shark ray pups.

This historical achievement was made possible through Newport Aquarium’s revolutionary Shark Ray Breeding Program (SRBP), which was established in February 2007 with the introduction of what was, as the time, an extremely rare male shark ray named Scooter. The SRBP expanded with the introduction of a second female shark ray, Sunshine, in 2009 and a second male, Spike, in 2013.

Sweet Pea and her new newborn pups will go on exhibit at Newport Aquarium on separate to-be-determined dates.

Shark rays (Rhina ancylostoma), also known as Bowmouth guitarfish, are rare and distinctive fish from the Indo-Pacific region. Feeding mostly on crabs and shellfish, they live near the coast and offshore reefs in tropical waters. Very little is known about this species that receives its name because their wide head area resembles a ray, while the rest of their body resembles a shark.

Sweet Pea’s successful birthing comes on the heels of reports that surfaced in January 2014 that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 25 percent of all shark and ray species are at risk of becoming extinct. Shark rays are officially on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Animals, meaning they are vulnerable to extinction. Threats to shark rays include habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing and the use of their fins for products including shark fin soup.

“It’s cool that Sweet Pea gave birth the same week as the IUCN reports,” said Animal Health Specialist Jolene Hanna, who has been studying hormones in the shark rays since the inception of the SRBP. “It shows the world that Newport Aquarium can successfully breed shark rays and help this species.”

Newport Aquarium husbandry’s most immediate obstacles are to get the pups to eat and to monitor their interaction amongst one another. The tank where the pups are located has been filled with live crab for the newborn shark rays to eat once they become hungry for the first time.

“We’ll be providing them with a smorgasbord of live food items that they might encounter in the wild,” said Jen Hazeres, who along with fellow aquatic biologist Scott Brehob work closely with the SRBP.

When Sweet Pea initially made history in June 2005 by becoming the first shark ray to go on display in the Western Hemisphere at Newport Aquarium, there were just five institutions in the world with shark rays. Today that number has increased to 25 institutions.

For the most up-to-date information on Sweet Pea and her six newborn pups, visit www.NewportAquarium.com, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

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Newport Aquarium showcases thousands of animals from around the world in a million gallons of water. Newport Aquarium is a Herschend Family Entertainment company (http://www.hfecorp.com) and an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Newport Aquarium is open to the public 365 days a year and is located two minutes from downtown Cincinnati at Newport on the Levee. Like us on Facebook (Facebook.com/NewportAquarium) and follow us on Twitter (@NewportAquarium).

One Aquarium Way, Newport, KY 41071 (859) 261-7444
www.newportaquarium.com