Who I am
I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where the water is way too dark and cold to even think about going for a swim. After watching a lot of documentaries about the ocean, I decided to study marine biology in Florida, which prompted me to get a scuba diving certification – in Seattle. Despite the freezing water and poor visibility, I was hooked. It seemed to me that underwater is the one place where life’s cares seem to melt away and this connection to the ocean has guided my circuitous career path ever since.
My first exposure to field work came during a course in Bimini and I thought, ‘This is the life: chasing fish in warm, clear water. What could be better?’ It’s taken me a while to translate the idea into reality, but I eventually found a way to study a fun aspect of an easily overlooked species. Yes, yellow stingrays are not terribly charismatic compared to huge pelagic sharks, but they are incredibly cute, especially the newborn pups that fit in the palm of your hand.
Where I work
A warm climate and clear water makes South Florida a popular destination for vacation-goers and snowbirds. I enjoy the diversity of coastal elasmobranchs (sharks, rays and skates), while their close proximity to shore gives researchers like me excellent opportunities to study these species in the field and in the laboratory. The best part of being here is the field work, even though I don’t get out in the field nearly enough because there is so much lab work to do!
Observing the natural migration patterns and behaviour of elasmobranchs is essential to understanding their biology, but we also need to bring animals back to the lab because we cannot control what happens in the field. Our marine science lab is right next to the Atlantic Ocean and the aquaria are supplied with sea water straight from the ocean. Furthermore, it is a great spot to maintain our elasmobranchs in a controlled environment without the stress of long-distance transportation. Here we can manipulate small variables in the geomagnetic field – no small task – and observe how the stingrays react, how they learn and what they remember. This information about the behaviour and sensory biology of elasmobranchs would be nearly impossible to achieve by field work alone.
What I do
For more than 40 years scientists have hypothesised that elasmobranchs use the earth’s magnetic field to navigate. Larger sharks, such as white sharks, basking sharks, blacktip sharks and scalloped hammerheads, are known to undertake long migrations between habitats, but the sensory cues they use to get from one place to another is a mystery. The yellow stingray serves an important biological role in the South Florida near-shore ecosystem and is an excellent laboratory model for the larger species that cannot be maintained in captivity.
We seek to understand a few general questions: how do sharks and rays perceive their environment; what sensory stimuli are essential to finding food, mates and suitable habitats, and avoiding predators; and how do sharks and rays process sensory information into appropriate behavioural responses? Specifically, my work focuses on whether elasmobranchs can use the geomagnetic field as a navigational cue. My behavioural experiments determine the types and range of magnetic stimuli that stingrays can detect and how learning and memory influence their cognitive ability. We don’t know how human activities, such as land development and energy exploration, impact the sensory capabilities and behaviour of elasmobranchs, but we must fill this gap in our knowledge if we are to mitigate any potential negative effects that we may have on these species.