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Global analysis reveals how sharks travel the oceans to find food

Published: 18 January 2018
Hammerhead sharks
Sharks are certainly amongst our most diverse and misunderstood group of fish. Credit: Simon Pierce

You’ve heard of “you are what you eat” - this research shows that for sharks, the more relevant phrase is “you are where you ate”.

A major international collaboration led by the University of Southampton could help global efforts to overturn recent declines in the world’s shark population by providing greater insight into the feeding habits of the world’s most misunderstood fish.

Led by Dr Christopher Bird during his PhD at Southampton, the study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, used chemical markers in the form of carbon isotopes found in sharks to investigate where in the world they have been feeding – an unresolved question for many shark species. Knowing which parts of the global ocean are important shark feeding areas may help to design more effective conservation measures to protect declining shark populations.

All life depends on carbon at the bottom of the food chain. Carbon comes in three forms or isotopes, and the proportions of two of the most common isotopes vary across the world’s ocean. In the study, 73 scientists from 21 countries compared the carbon isotopes from more than 5000 sharks from 114 species across the globe with those from phytoplankton at the bottom of the food web.

“If an animal feeds in the same place where it was caught, the carbon isotope signals in the shark and phytoplankton will match,” says Dr Bird whose PhD research was focused on deep-sea sharks. “However, if the shark has moved between feeding and where it was caught, then the signals will be different.

“You’ve heard of “you are what you eat” - well this is more “you are where you ate”, Dr Bird continued. “We were able to show that sharks living close to land and those that live in the open ocean have very different ways of feeding.

The results show that sharks living near to the coast feed locally across a range of different food webs –this is like people living in a city with access to lots of different restaurants in the neighbourhood and no need to travel far to find the food they want. On the other hand, oceanic sharks that are found throughout the world’s oceans, appear to get most of their food from specific areas of cooler water in the northern and southern hemispheres. This is more like travelling long distances from rural areas to spend lots of time eating in a few restaurants in a distant city. 

 “With over 500 known species around the world, sharks are certainly amongst our most diverse and misunderstood group of fish but we still have limited knowledge of their habits and behaviours, particularly relating to feeding and movement,” said Dr Bird. “Over the last 50 years, the pressures of fishing and habitat degradation have resulted in declines amongst some of the world’s shark populations, the effects of which are also not fully understood.”

Senior author Dr Clive Trueman, Associate Professor in Marine Ecology also from the University of Southampton added, “The results have important implications for conservation. Globally, sharks are not doing well. Many shark populations have declined in the last few decades, particularly in the wide-ranging oceanic sharks that are targeted by fishing boats and caught accidentally in tuna fisheries as “by-catch”. Governments are now creating large marine protected areas around the globe, which help to reduce fishing, but most of these protected areas are in tropical waters, and may not provide effective protection for oceanic sharks.”

“Sharks urgently need our help, but to help them we also need to understand them. Our study has helped by identifying important shark feeding grounds. New technologies like satellite and isotope tracking are giving us the information we need to turn the tide on these beautiful and fascinating animals.”

The paper ‘A global perspective on the trophic geography of sharks’ is published in the February issue of Nature Ecology & Evolution (doi 10.1038.s41559-017-0432-z).

 

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Shelf and oceanic sharks move and feed in different ways, as illustrated in this cartoon by Chris Bird and Clive Trueman.
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An international research team used chemical markers in the form of carbon isotopes found in sharks to investigate where in the world they have been feeding. Credit: Christopher Bird
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Knowing which parts of the global ocean are important shark feeding areas may help to design more effective conservation measures to protect declining shark populations. Credit: Clare Prebble

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