Who I am
It all began on the arid Baja California peninsula one weekend in 2012 when I met Ursula and Abraham. Ursula was the biggest animal I had ever seen. I stumbled upon her as I was taking a swim in the murky waters of the Bahia de los Angeles in the Sea of Cortez. Her skin was like a starry night and her mouth like a black hole. Abraham was a doctor who spent his free time helping the scientific team with a survey of the whale shark population in the bay. After apologising for swimming in the protected ‘shark zone’, I managed to persuade Abraham to let me help him for the weekend. Ursula was the first shark I had ever seen and the thought of seeing more like her was irresistible. After a few days of helping Abraham, I met the scientific team and was offered a position as a research assistant for six months on the project. That is how I got into sharks.
Before that I was studying for my Master’s degree in agricultural sciences. I have been obsessed with animal behaviour and horses ever since I was a child and had envisaged that I would work with horses, cattle, big mammals in Africa, birds in the rainforest, aquaculture fishes or even insects. Never had I imagined myself working for a PhD in the big blue, especially not with juvenile lemon sharks!
Where I work
I remember being very intimidated the first time I entered the building of the Bimini Biological Field Station. It was so small and crowded, and yet everyone seemed to know where they were going and what they were doing – everyone except me!
The Bimini Biological Field Station, also known as the Shark Lab, studies the sharks and rays that inhabit the waters around Bimini. It benefits from the incredible diversity of habitats created by the interplay between the deep waters of the Gulf Stream and the Great Bahama Bank. Because of this diversity, at least 13 species of elasmobranchs can be found close to Bimini, creating a great scientific playground for the ‘Shark Labbers’. These form a group of about 20 individuals, usually fairly young, who come from all over the world but have one common denominator: a fervent passion for sharks. Such a great mix of motivated brains and shark research opportunities is deemed to create a never-ending stream of new research ideas. Indeed, the Shark Lab always has on board three PhD students and a couple of students with independent projects, in addition to the scientists carrying out long-term research projects. There is always something to do. We work long hours and days off are scarce, but there is nothing better than working with such a great group of friends on amazing animals!
What I do
At the Shark Lab, I am one of three lucky PhD students – and I was one of the lucky MSc students before that. My project focuses on the personality of juvenile lemon sharks. Defined as a consistency in behavioural response over time and across situations, personality is a well-documented subject in many animal taxa that range from mammals to insects. However, most studies focus on small, non-predatory animals that are easy to capture and keep in captivity. I am trying not only to fill this taxonomical gap by documenting personality in sharks, but also to understand what consequences different personality types would have in wild shark populations. Would sharks have different life-history traits depending on their personality? Would some sharks be more likely to take risks than others? These are some of the questions I am hoping to answer.
This project involves captive behaviour trials, multiple captures of the same individuals using gill nets, stable isotope sampling, active and passive telemetry and genetic sampling.