Project Leader

Ariadna Rojas Corzo

Ariadna Rojas Corzo

Who I am

I grew up on the island of Cuba where I learned how to swim long before I learned how to ride a bicycle. I fondly remember riding on the back of my dad’s bike for our weekend visits to the beach. Every time we went, he struggled to get me out of the water and keep me from bringing home every shell I found. When I was considering a career path, my parents said to me, ‘Make sure you choose something you love. That way you won’t work a day of your life.’ Hearing those words, I knew that marine biology was the obvious choice. After high school, I enrolled at the University of Havana to pursue a BSc degree in biology. During that time, I worked with dolphins, sea turtles and free-living nematodes. I loved everything I did, but I needed to find my purpose. The defining moment of my career was participating in the Project for the Conservation of Sharks and Rays in Cuba. During that time, I was fascinated by cartilaginous fishes, but I also realised that in Cuba elasmobranchs are heavily exploited and have little to no protection. At the same time, I was learning about the global decline in shark populations. I was shocked and determined to address this issue, even if it was just on a small scale. My career path was set. As result of a collaborative effort between Cuba and Mote Marine Laboratory, I got involved in shark and ray research with the creation of the Plan of Action for the Conservation of Sharks in Cuba. Since then, my main professional interest has been the conservation of elasmobranchs, with a focus on near-threatened and endangered species.

Where I work

I am a second-year PhD student in the Integrative Biology–Marine Science and Oceanography programme at Florida Atlantic University and am based at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute campus in St Lucie County, Florida. This is a world-class research institution with a focus on exploring the marine environment, studying key species and understanding the connection between humans and the ocean.

Under the guidance of Dr Matthew Ajemian, I am conducting a novel study aimed at revealing the nursery habitats of Florida’s protected whitespotted eagle ray in the hope of improving baseline knowledge about this species for conservation management. The whitespotted eagle ray is globally Endangered and has suffered a population decline of 50–79% in the past 30 years. Nursery habitats are important areas for sharks and rays since they provide abundant food and refuge from predators. If we find and protect these areas, we can potentially help reduce threats to the young animals and help recover depleted populations. With the help of the Save Our Seas Foundation grant, I will be working in Sarasota Bay and the Indian River Lagoon, which are known to be important areas for this species.

What I do

Following eagle rays is a big part of what I do. Active tracking can be described as locating and actively following a species from a boat. It’s challenging, since you have to find the rays as they may be passing from one habitat to another. Also, you are following something that you often can’t see! The tags we use ‘ping’ every second and this ping is detected by an underwater microphone. Depending on the strength of the signal, we know how close or far away we are from the ray. We record the direction it is moving in, its depth and the time and exact location. With this information I build the ray’s trajectory to determine speed, heading, distance, turn angle and net square displacement, and I calculate the extent of the animal’s range and intensity of area use. When I am not tracking, I am planning field work, ordering tags and supplies and analysing data. As part of my PhD dissertation, I am also looking at the uptake of biotoxins in whitespotted eagle rays. Harmful algal blooms are now a recurrent and serious problem in many areas of the USA, including the Indian River Lagoon and Sarasota Bay. Biotoxins associated with these blooms include: brevetoxins (the cause of neurotoxic shellfish poisoning), saxitoxins (the cause of paralytic shellfish poisoning), domoic acid (the cause of amnesic shellfish poisoning) and others. Eagle rays can be exposed to these toxins through their diet, as they feed on molluscs such as clams and oysters that can store toxins for weeks or years. Given the whitespotted eagle ray’s recent classification as an Endangered species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, it is important to understand the types and amounts of biotoxins affecting its populations. This may also clarify human exposure to these toxins from consuming shellfish.

My project

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