While most of Kirsti’s work is lab-based in Germany, she is building a reference genome (all the genetic material for the species) for Cabo Verde’s blackchin guitarfish. Critically Endangered blackchin guitarfish are regularly sighted around the uninhabited island of Santa Luzia, one of ten islands peppered around Cabo Verde, an archipelago 600 km off Senegal in West Africa. Kirsti, researchers and local fishers catch these guitarfish, taking small tissue samples before releasing them. This population will provide a new resource to be used for future research and conservation efforts of blackchin guitarfish – and other species of giant guitarfish.
As far back as I can remember, I have had a profound curiosity about the ocean and a particular fascination for sharks and rays. Some of the first drawings I brought home from school to my parents were of sharks surrounded by smaller fish and blue water, and unlike most children who spoke about becoming teachers or veterinarians, I always wanted to become a marine biologist. I was fortunate to grow up on the east coast of Canada and near the ocean, which allowed me to develop this love for and curiosity about the underwater world. Life was best spent...
The primary objective of my project will be to leverage recent advances in DNA sequencing technology to assemble a reference genome for the blackchin guitarfish in particular and for the group (giant guitarfishes) more generally. This new resource will be immensely important for research on giant guitarfishes and their conservation.
Giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes are among the most endangered groups of marine fishes globally, however, the current available genetic data for these species are limited. Filling this knowledge gap by assembling a high-quality reference genome for blackchin guitarfish in particular and giant guitarfish more generally will provide the tools needed to use genomics to study the population of this species. Ultimately, these analyses will help inform appropriate and critical conservation efforts.
Giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes have become two of the most endangered marine fish families globally. Additionally, very little is known about these unique animals, however, they are at a high risk of extinction due to targeted fisheries and by-catch. With my project, I will leverage recent advances in DNA sequencing technology to fill the particular genetic gap in knowledge by assembling a high-quality reference genome for the blackchin guitarfish in particular and for the group more generally. This new resource will be used to estimate the effective size of the Santa Luzia population in Cabo Verde (i.e., I will estimate the number of productive individuals in the population by analyzing their genome) and establish whether it is genetically distinct from mainland Africa populations of blackchin guitarfish. The blackchin guitarfish can be found along the eastern Atlantic coast, from northern Portugal to Angola including the Mediterranean, and as of recently the Santa Luzia Island in Cabo Verde. This species grows slowly, matures late, and has relatively few young, which is the perfect recipe to make a species highly vulnerable to exploitation. In addition, the blackchin guitarfish is expected to be particularly vulnerable to trawling as a result of living in shallow, sandy and muddy coastal areas. Having a shallow-water lifestyle may also result in demographic and genetic isolation between the Cabo Verde and mainland Africa populations due to the great water depths between the island nation and mainland Africa. Nevertheless, virtually nothing is known about the blackchin guitarfish from Santa Luzia. Additionally, Cabo Verde is a region of paramount importance for chondrichthyans in the North Atlantic and tropical eastern Atlantic and may represent a refuge for the critically endangered blackchin guitarfish and other shark and ray species.
Utilizing recent advances in DNA sequencing technology for my primary objective I will assemble a reference genome for the blackchin guitarfish in particular and for the group (giant guitarfishes) more generally.
Future objectives then include using this reference genome to estimate the effective population size of the blackchin guitarfish from Santa Luzia. These analyses will complement ongoing efforts to collect baseline demographic data (age, growth rate and sex) on this recently discovered population to inform its management and conservation. Lastly, a future objective would be to use this reference genome to determine whether the Santa Luzia population is genetically distinct from mainland populations. If this was the case it would be even more important to protect this population in Cabo Verde. Baseline demographic and genetic data are needed to turn the Santa Luzia Island into a refuge for the blackchin guitarfish and other shark and ray species. Project work will also help build a bridge between local stakeholders (for outreach and the collection of baseline demographic data) and an international-standing institute and research group (for genome assembly).
Demian’s team is developing tools that help border control officers identify illegal shark products. His project is sifting through ‘rhino ray’ DNA sequences looking for differences in code between the guitarfishes, giant guitarfishes and wedgefishes nicknamed for their pointy snouts (and Endangered status). Months of testing will help ensure only rhino ray DNA is targeted before the team flies to Hong Kong to help officials use a portable DNA tester. This project will add to the arsenal currently being used to identify illegal shark fins moving across borders, and help stop the trafficking of ‘rhino ray’ fins.
Aristide created a citizen science platform and mobile app for fishers across Cameroon’s 400 km coastline to record sightings of sharks, rays and marine life. These photos are uploaded to iNaturalist where they are identified and will serve to create Cameroon’s first elasmobranch atlas. Together with his team, Aristide ensures data are being uploaded, visits fish landing sites to assess bycatch and measure sharks, and scours the beaches to check for strandings and sea turtle nests. He collects tissue samples of threatened species in these visits that can give more insights into the diversity, population size and structure of vulnerable sharks.
Ali is collaborating with researchers across North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean to develop support tools for guitarfish conservation. As an advocate, much of her work is completed behind a computer and locked in meetings, but her goal is to help bring awareness to the threatened status of guitarfish in the Mediterranean. The current Director of Conservation for the Shark Trust, Ali represents a large number of regional partners to engage with governments, develop new resources and coordinate guitarfish conservation activities.