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Put a Camera On It: How Scientists Use New Tech to Study Sharks

By Erin Biba

Researchers are totally obsessed with understanding sharks right now. And thanks to all sorts of new technologies, some innovative scientists are finding unconventional ways to track that elusive shark behavior.

Researchers are totally obsessed with understanding sharks right now. One of the major reasons why is that the world’s most successful hunters have been elusive and difficult to study. They’re constantly on the move -- some species migrate thousands of miles every year. But thanks to all sorts of new technologies, and some innovative scientists finding unconventional ways to use that tech, shark behavior is finally starting to come into the light. Here’s a look at some of the more innovative ways scientists are using tech to study sharks.

Image credit: Carl Meyer

Underwater Cameras

Scientists may have captured and tagged some sharks, and observed their behavior from the surface of the sea, but very little is known about how they behave when no one’s looking. The least studied part of shark behavior, for example, is how they interact with each other or other species of shark. So Carl Meyer and his team at The University of Hawaii worked with Japanese company Little Leonardo to build cameras small enough to fit on a shark’s fin without hindering their movement.

What they found once the cameras were in the ocean shocked them. Local reef sharks -- just a few miles off the coast of their own research base -- were mingling with all sorts of different shark species, including Hammerheads. The team was able to see feeding behavior and even some frisky swimming as sharks chased around members of the opposite sex.

Above: Camera-equipped male sandbar shark swims in close proximity to the reef, startling reef fishes, before heading across open sand to find and pursue a female sandbar shark. Credit: University of Hawaii (Carl Meyer)/University of Tokyo (Katsufumi Sato)

Meyer calls the cameras “data flight recorders for sharks” and says that thanks to the research they now have the first true sharks-eye-view of the ocean. Going forward they’re hoping to gain a better understanding of sharks eating habits by seeing the hunt from the sharks’ perspective.

Accelerometers and Live Mapping

A slew of research is being dedicated to tracking where sharks go, how fast they get there, and what their swimming behavior is along the way. Accelerometers are one of the more traditional methods, but scientists are combining them with more advanced technology to gather new data about shark behavior.

Above: Scientists tag a Tiger Shark with triaxial accelerometer-magnetometer and video camera. Credit: Mark Royer/University of Hawaii

One company, OCEARCH, a collaboration of at least 50 researchers from 20 institutions, has developed a global shark tracker. Basically a Google Maps of sharks around the world’s oceans, anybody can access the map and see where OCEARCH’s tagged sharks are at any given moment. In addition to the tracker, OCEARCH has done a series of research projects including a tag that monitors water temperature, accelerometer data loggers (similar to what’s found in your phone to track movement), fin clips to monitor how often sharks come in contact with each other as well as what their diet is, and acoustic tags that help scientists monitor shark behavior in three dimensions.

The Global Tagging of Palegic Predators project, a group of 23 researchers at 19 institutions, has tagged thousands of animals -- at least four different species of sharks (as well as marlin, seals, and several tuna species). They’ve also deployed several buoys to capture data from tagged animals and a wave glider called Carey (named after Fish Biologist Frank Carey), which floats along the California coast and picks up data from nearby animal tags and takes a census of all marine life in the area.

The Bimini SharkLab in the Bahamas, in conjunction with Mote Marine Lab and Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida, just recently tagged four juvenile nurse sharks with accelerometers they’re hoping will help collect fine-scale data about shark movement and orientation. They’re also looking at shark’s Field Metabolic Rate, or the amount of energy sharks expend, to see the impacts the nurse sharks had on their environment.

Above credit: Mark Royer/University of Hawaii

Get Drones in On the Action

Saildrone is a floating robot equipped with a submersible laboratory. Made almost entirely out of carbon fiber, the device has a small tail that moves around like a wing, allowing it to be controlled from literally anywhere (the drone is linked to a satellite that passes along commands delivered via the internet). With solar panels on top, the drone powers itself and is able to move completely autonomously.

So what does this have to do with sharks? Well, nothing yet. But scientists are hoping to change that. Saildrone is working with Liquid Robotics, a Silicon Valley-based company that builds ocean instruments, to prove the robots worth as a scientific data-gathering device. Because of its design, the bot can be outfitted with a variety of devices (they’ve already set two up to measure atmospheric and sub-surface weather conditions for NOAA).

In the shark world, they think they can send the drone into areas like the White Shark Cafe (a remote area in the Pacific Ocean where White Sharks go to spend their winter and spring) without interfering with natural shark behavior. Lead researcher Richard Jenkins told the San Francisco Chronicle that they haven’t had any problems with sharks mistaking the sailboat for a big fish -- yet. This is a big change from the standard research vessel, whose engines tend to scare off any marine life in the area. If Saildrone ends up being a useful tool to track sharks, like they suspect, it could spend long periods of time in shark habitats and relay information about shark life that no one has seen before.