Nico is using acoustic telemetry and BRUVs around Seychelles to explore how reef sharks are using their reef homes. What are they eating? What prey is available? His project aims to explore what factors influence ideal habitats for sharks and will combine information from both pristine and degraded reefs to create a model to test this suitability. The point? To build on work by the Marine Futures Lab across the Indian Ocean and the Indo-Pacific and to help identify priority shark conservation areas.
Ever since I saw my first shark in 2013, I knew that I wanted to become a marine biologist and work with these fascinating animals one day. I grew up in Germany, some three hours’ drive from the nearest ocean, but discovered my passion for marine life at the age of 11 when I dived for the first time with my dad. That was in the Red Sea, in Egypt, and I remember being blown away by the colours and the number of fish we encountered – unlike anything I’d ever seen before. On finishing school, I flew to Seychelles...
To investigate the relationship between reef habitat complexity and habitat use in different species of reef shark. By combining benthic habitat zonation and structural complexity metrics, prey availability surveys, and acoustic tracking and video observations of reef sharks, we will assess how changes to reef structure, and associated changes in reef fish communities, can affect the fine-scale habitat suitability choices of top coral reef predators.
Over the past decades, increases in shark fishing and climatic disturbance events have led to a global, cumulative decline in populations of coastal sharks and their associated habitat, coral reefs. A global study of coastal shark habitats found that sharks were absent from 20% of the 371 reefs surveyed. Indian Ocean areas were not only highlighted as being in critical need of protection, but also identified as having great potential for the implementation of predator-based management approaches.
This project will use cutting-edge technology and state-of-the-art ecological modelling to improve our understanding of the complex behaviour of reef sharks and inform regional management strategies. Identifying critical habitat for reef shark species in a near-pristine environment will help us to inform the effective management and protection of shark species in Seychelles’ waters. In addition, filling the knowledge gaps in functional predator ecology will aid in the effective management of these species and enable healthy reef environments to be safeguarded. By using a high-tech and low-cost approach, we will maximise the possibilities of replicating the study and the accessibility of digital approaches, both of which can assist long-term monitoring projects, predator studies and ecological modelling efforts.
The concept of top-down control in coral reef communities as well as trophic cascades induced by declines in shark populations have long been studied. Our understanding of these processes is complicated by the dynamic and complex nature of coral reef communities and much of what is known of these phenomena stems from field-based studies and associated food web modelling approaches. The drivers of non-trophic effects on reef communities are, however, often excluded from such investigations. In many cases, physical characteristics such as wave energy, current velocity and habitat dynamics are likely to impact foraging behaviour and success, for example. Habitat structure and complexity impact the distribution and availability of prey resources and are important components in interpreting inter-species interactions. Defining fine-scale habitat use patterns and environmental requirements as well as inter-species variations in reef dependence is crucial to understanding the role of sharks on reefs and predicting the consequences of their loss. Taking a bottom-up approach to modelling reef shark habitat interactions will give novel insights into the sharks’ complex behaviour patterns and the role benthic communities play in predator–prey interactions.
Outside the USA, The Bahamas is the only place where Critically Endangered smalltooth sawfish can reliably be found. Tristan wants to ensure that protection measures in The Bahamas are understood and enforced as far as sawfish are concerned to close the current gap between policy and the people. He’ll be using aerial surveys, sonar and BRUVs, combined with interviews that draw on local knowledge, to identify essential sawfish habitats that need protection. Engaging with the community through workshops and by training students and meeting with government, Tristan intends to advocate for smalltooth sawfish protection throughout The Bahamas’ territorial waters.
Steven and Kevin are using genetic techniques to understand how Caribbean reef shark populations are connected across the extent of their range. Populations of this Endangered shark are in decline generally, but where they are managed and there is effective protection, their numbers are stable. With the integration of the correct information, Steven and Kevin are convinced that we can give Caribbean reef sharks a better shot at recovery and population stabilisation. They will also explore any barriers to connectivity, looking to the future recruitment and recovery of these sharks.
With very little information available about Endangered sicklefin devil rays, their seasonal aggregations at sea mounts in the Azores give Sophie an opportunity to learn more about their lives. She will be collecting satellite-tracking data that show how they move in the Azores’ exclusive economic zone. The information she collects will be used to develop maps of how the rays are using the zone and to identify essential areas that multiple species use. With this information at hand, Sophie hopes her work can contribute to a network of marine protected areas.