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SHARK RESEARCH PROJECTS

The challenges facing sharks are many and seemingly overwhelming. More than 100 million are slaughtered every year for their fins, whilst climate change dramatically disrupts the oceanic ecosystem and food chain.

The Shark Research Unit believes that conducting strategic long-term and short-term shark research projects can inform and guide the management and conservation policies of South Africa’s governing authority. In doing this, we can help ensure the sustainability of the shark species frequenting our waters. 

Overview

We assess sharks’ regional and national populations through ongoing photographic identification research.  We assess populations with ‘mark-recapture’ analytical techniques using the sharks unique identifying features gained from photographic data. These features include unique pigmentation patterns, dorsal fin notches, distinct wounds and shark size and gender. The specific species we are researching consists of the great white shark, blacktip shark, sand tiger shark, puffadder shy shark and pyjama shark.

Research Questions

> Sighting rates (CPUE) of target shark species

> Local population estimates of target shark species

> National population estimates of target shark species

> Sex ratio and distribution of target shark species

> Site-specific size distribution of target shark species

Principle Investigator

Ryan Johnson

“These projects are a vital opportunity to non-invasively explore the long term numbers and population sustainability of subject shark species. With the ecological and human-induced pressures on shark species, ongoing assessment of population health is one of the most powerful tools we have to ensure the survival of sharks.”

Overview

Sharks are naturally shy creatures, and as such non-invasive methods to measure diversity of sharks in an area is limited. The development and use of baited remote underwater video systems have proven to be reliable and effective methods of assessing diversity on reefs. At the Shark Research Unit we use BRUV’s throughout our study areas to monitor the diversity of sharks, fish and other marine life.

Research Questions

> Diversity and relative of shark species on reefs within the Mossel Bay region

> Diversity and relative abundance of fish species within the Mossel Bay region.

>Variation in shark abundance and diversity as a function of season

>Variation in shark abundance and diversity as a function of environmental conditions.

Principle Investigator

Nico Booyens

“Using BRUV’s (Baited Remote Underwater Video) systems offers an incredible tool to monitor and describe reef life that you can never hope to achieve using SCUBA or other invasive techniques.” 

Overview

In the last few years, the use of environmental DNA to document the presence and distribution of shark species (without visual information), has developed as a powerful tool to quickly and cheaply determine the absence or presence of a certain shark species in an area. At the Shark Research Unit we are advancing this technique to measure relative abundance and reliability of this technique through ground truthing it with sighted shark numbers.

Research Questions

> Can eDNA be used to assess abundance of sharks in a specific region

> Concordance between shark sighting rate (CPUE) and measurements of shark abundance derived from eDNA measurements. 

Principle Investigator

Gibbs Kuguru

“Using metrics, such as eDNA, that don’t require visual observation, may be one of the most fascinating new techniques to assess the diversity and abundance of sharks in a specific region.” 

Overview

The ability of sharks to change their colour is an under-studied field of research. Historically a number of sharks have proven to have hormonally induced colour change abilities. The observation of background matching (adapting to the colour of a background) is thought to enable such sharks to increase camouflage in varied environments where they hunt for food or avoid detection from predators. At the shark research unit we are investigating the ability of the Great Whtie Shark to modify its colour in response to different environments and behavioural activities. 

Research Questions

> Does the great white shark present hormonally induced colour change abilities?

> What hormones are responsible for inducing either darkening or lightening effects in great white sharks?

> Does activity type impact the phenotypic display of colouration in great white sharks.

Principle Investigator

Ryan Johnson

“The ability of a shark to vary its colour to match differring environments may be critical to its ability to maintain its ecological position when faced with todays changing climate.” 

Overview

In recent years, a number of fish and sharks have been found to have bioflourence properties, and particularly the ability to modify blue light into green light wavelengths. At the Shark Research Unit we are discovering new shark species that have this ability by using confocal microscopy to excite shark skin with specific light wavelengths and accurately measure the emitted wavelengths. Further, the project aims to investigate the ecological role that bioflourence has in the ecological success of subject shark species.

Research Questions

> What shark species in South Africa demonstrate biofluorescence properties 

> What light wavelengths are most effective at stimulating biofluorescence reactions in particular shark species skins

> What light wavelengths are most emitted following light excitation in particular shark species skins

> Does biofluorescence have positive or negative impacts on the degree of crypotisis that sharks present to potential predator or prey species. 

> Does bioflourence properties have positive or negative effect on conspecific communication between sharks

Principle Investigator

Ryan Johnson

“As we discover more and more sharks that possess biofluorescent abilities, we must also begin to understand the ecological reasons that this ability evolved and persists in these sharks.”

Overview

Non-targeted fishing and incidental capture of sharks can result in significant injury to sharks and affect their ability to survive. This is of particular importance in Marine Protected Areas where sharks should be afforded a degree of protection from fishing activities. The Shark Research Unit is conducting ongoing research into the level of human and fishing induced injury in shark populations residing within marine protected areas. Furthermore, we monitor the health, recovery and behaviour of injured sharks from time of injury to full recovery.

Research Questions

> What is survival likliehood following fishing induced injury to sharks

> Do fishing injury pressence impact behaviour of sharks at a shark diving area

> Describe the recovery timeframe of sharks injured by fishing equipment. Specifically as a function of injury severity

Principle Investigator

Jessica Escobar Ph.D.

“Using BRUV’s (Baited Remote Underwater Video) systms offers an incredible tool to monitor and describe reef life that you can never hope to achive using SCUBA or other invasive techniques.” 

Overview

Recent distribution change of Great White Sharks has resulted in an increasing number of sightings at South Africa’s, Plettenberg Bay. At this bay, a resident population of Cape fur seals reside on mainland rocks surrounded by shallow waters. The Shark Research Unit is using observation studies to describe the predator prey dynamics that enable the white shark to capture and exploit the Cape fur seal resource in this unique environment. 

Research Questions

> What behavioural hunting techniques do white sharks utilise when hunting Cape fur seals at Robberg Peninsula colony. 

> Success rates of predatory attempts by white sharks on Cape fur seals at Robberg.

> Behavioural predator avoidance strategies utilised by Cape fur seals at Robberg.

Principle Investigator

Nico Booyens

“Using BRUV’s (Baited Remote Underwater Video) systms offers an incredible tool to monitor and describe reef life that you can never hope to achive using SCUBA or other invasive techniques.” 

Overview

Modification of shark perception by humans is critical to generate wide scale support for shark conservation efforts. Shark tourism has long been touted as a powerful tool to facilitate this desired change in perception. At the shark research unit we determine the impact of shark tourism on human perceptions, as well as, determining effective communication and education tools that tourism operations can use to effect such perception change in shark diving and adventure tourists.  

Research Questions

> Does shark diving and ecotourism activities cause perception changes in humans towards sharks.

> Is the degree of perception change induced independent of the level of active education perople receive whilst on shark diving expereicnes?

> Is the degree of perception change induced independent of the type of active education people receive whilst on shark diving expereicnes?

Principle Investigator

Nico Booyens

“Using BRUV’s (Baited Remote Underwater Video) systms offers an incredible tool to monitor and describe reef life that you can never hope to achive using SCUBA or other invasive techniques.” 

Past projects

The scientists of the Shark Research Unit have lead and conducted many of South Africa’s most ambitious and successful shark research projects during the past 20 years. Some of the highlights include

Satellite tracking Great White Sharks. Satellite tracking over 50 great white sharks throughout South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Seychelles and as far as Australia.

Acoustic telemetry on Great White Sharks. Conducting both passive and active tracking of over 150 great white sharks using VEMCO based telemetry arrays. Establishing fine scale movements, residency patterns, habitat use patterns.

Predatory encounters between great white shark to hunt humpback whales. Documented and analysed strategic predatory approach of a great white shark hunting and drowning a weakened juvenile humpback whale. 

Shark Bite Force. Assessing bite force of great white sharks through measuring maximum bite pressure on custom designed bite force meter. Determining bite progression patterns and relating maximum bite force to shark size.

Residency patterns of Great White Sharks. Use of photographic identification and passive listening stations to determine residency patterns of great white sharks in the Mossel Bay region. Specifically investigating site fidelity as a function of shark total length, gender and seasonal patterns in occurrence.

Impact of White Shark Cage Diving. Conducted a six year impact assessment on the impact of white shark cage diving on the ecology of the great white shark, and the impact on relationship between sharks and humans. 

Key Publications

The Shark Research Unit is dedicated to producing tangible scientific result. Be assured that your contribution to our research will benefit the understanding of South Africa’s shark populations.

INTERNSHIPS

Join the Shark Reseach Unit as a research or filming intern. Live shark week every week whist gaining invaluble practical training skills. 

GRADUATE STUDIES

The SRU hosts students each year as they collect data for their graduate and post graduate degrees. See how you can qualify to complete your thesis with the unit

COLLABORATE

The SRU partners with a worldwide network of natural science researchers. We welcome collaborative proposals from academics requiring access to South Africa’s coastal shark species.

PARTNER INSTITUTES

The SRU’s scientific team partners with top academic institutes and professional research bodies

FUN WAYS YOU CAN SUPPORT OUR PROJECTS

Is your dream to work with sharks?

ABOUT US

The Shark Research Unit is a shark and marine research and conservation institute driven by a passionate team of shark experts. We are located in South Africa and work in two regions of priority – Aliwal Shoal and Mossel Bay. 

Our core purpose is to conduct and support original shark research, conservation and education programs through strategic partnerships with marine scientists, postgraduate students, ecotourism operators and academic institutes. 

Our focus extends to nurturing a new generation (of all ages) of shark scientists, professionals and enthusiasts. We achieve this through our great white shark research internship, learner outreach programs and expert guided shark edu-tours  

CONNECT

MOSSEL BAY CENTER

  • 182 Aalwyn Way
  • Aalwyndal
  • Mossel Bay 6520
  • South Africa

ALIWAL SHOAL CENTRE

  • 34 Egerton Rd
  • Freeland Park
  • Schottburgh 4180
  • South Africa

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