Project Leader

Cindy Gonzalez

Cindy Gonzalez

Who I am

From an early age I have been attracted to nature and the ocean and when I was little my dream was to be a veterinarian so that I could save animals. My parents felt a special connection with farmers and indigenous communities in Colombia and would show me how these people produce their own food and how they use local resources to trade goods. We spent holidays on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and I always felt that the ocean was my favourite place. These experiences shaped my way of perceiving the world. By the time I was 14 I already loved diving and got my PADI open-water licence. Later, when I was 16 and finishing high school, I realised that my interests lay in the connection between the ocean and society as a pathway to conservation. For this reason I studied for a Bachelor’s degree in ecology, with an emphasis on tropical marine ecosystems.
Afterwards, in 2011, I had the amazing opportunity to work for the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for five years under the guidance of great marine scientists, conducting projects relating to coral reef health, fisheries assessments and social work. While working with local fishermen I noticed that hammerhead sharks were present in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, so I proposed to study them for my Master’s. Unexpectedly, this led to finding a unique population of bonnethead sharks. Genetic analysis revealed that these bonnetheads belonged to a different lineage, Sphyrna aff. tiburo, from those in the western Atlantic, S. tiburo, making the bonnetheads into a cryptic species complex. Currently, for my PhD, I am using molecular approaches and morphometrics to resolve the taxonomy and phylogeography of the bonnethead shark complex throughout its distribution so that a baseline can be created for the fisheries management and conservation of small hammerhead sharks in Latin American and Caribbean waters.

Where I work

The marine ecosystems and coastal resources of Latin America and the Caribbean are among those least explored in the world. There is little literature available and fisheries data about sharks in this region. Hammerhead sharks are one of the most threatened and exploited groups of sharks globally. It is interesting that, of the eight species in the genus Sphyrna, four are categorised as ‘small hammerheads’ (S. tiburo, S. tudes, S. media and S. corona) and their distribution is restricted to the American continent. Notably, the bonnethead shark species complex is an important component of the fisheries in the USA, Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2019 the IUCN reassessed S. tiburo and classified it as Endangered on its Red List of Threatened Species.
My research focuses on the population genetics and distribution of the bonnethead shark complex (S. tiburo tiburo vs S. aff. tiburo) in the western Atlantic and the Caribbean region, comprising Belize, Panama and Brazil. However, no data have been reported for the S. tiburo vespertina subspecies from the eastern Pacific. Panama is a key country for exploring Central American waters as it provides easy access to both the Pacific and the Caribbean.
The uplifting of the isthmus of Panama is considered the best example of a geographical event that has separated populations of a species. Different hypotheses to explain the formation of the isthmus are still debated, but all agree that between 4.2 and 3.5 million years ago the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean were still connected by a shallow channel. The closure of that channel modified the environment, affecting the current flow, primary productivity, temperature and salinity of the two major water bodies and triggering independent evolutionary trajectories for their marine organisms. Solving questions of population genetics and molecular divergence between two closely related lineages of bonnethead sharks on either side of the isthmus will be of great interest. The results of this research can inform management and conservation plans for small hammerheads in Latin America and the Caribbean.

What I do

Molecular approaches is a powerful tool that augments our understanding of the population features, connectivity and conservation needs of mobile and highly dispersed marine species such as sharks. Moreover, conservation genetics is an outstanding means of assessing, monitoring and managing endangered species. Exploration of both the nuclear and the mitochondrial DNA provides valuable information about the status of shark populations and can also solve evolutionary and taxonomic puzzles. But shark conservation requires more than collecting samples and working in the lab; the most important link is to work with fishermen and local communities to acquire a better understanding of the socio-economic value of fisheries at a local level. As a marine ecologist, I use a mixture of science, field work and social work to foster a better relationship between science and society.
This project combines field work, lab work, data analysis, workshops with local fishermen and the application of different disciplines of science (genetics, taxonomy, geology, biogeography, phylogeography, ecology and biology) to understand the past and present background of the bonnethead shark species complex. Its results will be used to reassess the species complex and to propose management strategies at a local and regional level.

My project

Project See project and more news