August 8, 2014 | By John Perney
Are you a part of the Albion College family in Chicagoland? Are you a Brit planning to visit the Windy City in the next few weeks? What do you think about sharks?
No, there haven’t been any great whites spotted in Lake Michigan. But you only have until Labor Day, September 1, to see research by Albion scientists—with contributions from former students—highlighted as part of a major exhibit.
In the Oceans wing of National Geographic Presents: Earth Explorers at the Museum of Science and Industry, one display includes a mention of findings from a team led by Jeff Carrier, professor emeritus of biology, that an individual litter of nurse shark pups could be fathered by more than one male. The conclusions were drawn over a number of years starting in the early 1990s and led to a 2002 paper, “Multiple Paternity in the Nurse Shark,” in the journal Environmental Biology of Fishes.
“It is the only systematic study of mating behavior and reproduction of any shark species anywhere in the world,” said Carrier, who co-authored the ’02 paper with Harold “Wes” Pratt of Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium; geneticist and Albion professor of biology Ken Saville; and alumni Andrea Lindley Caplea, ’99, and Nora Maries, ’00.
The sharks examined were part of a long-term study done in the Dry Tortugas off the Florida Keys. “With nurse sharks, the mating often occurs in very shallow water – so it’s very visible,” Carrier said. The DNA analysis to demonstrate multiple paternity was carried out as part of a faculty/student research project on the Albion campus.
Carrier, whose interest in sharks goes back to his teenage years diving and surfing off the northeast coast of Florida, funded a lot of his own early research before eventually collaborating on several projects with the National Geographic Society. His work has been featured many times over the years during Discovery Channel’s annual “Shark Week” (which this year begins August 10), but these days Carrier is among a growing number of both scientists and nonscientists who question the programming strategy of the popular series.
“Shark Week doesn’t help a bit,” he said. “The scientific community has been dismayed for quite some time about the sensationalism. A lot of the shows now are made by independent producers, and a lot of scientists won’t work with Discovery.”
Carrier taught at Albion from 1979-2010 and among his many College honors was Scholar of the Year in 2008. He still researches regularly and has two books in the works on other shark species. He also takes pride in Albion’s continuing deep connection to sharks: Young Alumni Award recipients Nick Whitney, ’00, and Derek Burkholder, ’04, from the Mote Lab and the Guy Harvey Research Institute of Nova Southeastern University, respectively, both focus on them. (Whitney is included in a Scientific American list of "The Best Shark Biologists and Conservationists to Follow During Shark Week.")
“These are large fish that have long been construed as a major pest and predator, but in fact they are a vital part of the ecosystem,” Carrier said. “They’re top-level predators. They eliminate the weak, the diseased, and they help keep any marine ecosystem intact.”
Overfishing is taking its toll on their numbers, however, and their natural habits don’t help matters.
“Sharks have a terrible reproductive strategy,” Carrier said. “They grow very slowly. They mature very late in their lives. And they don’t have many offspring. Animals with that kind of strategy that become a target of commercial fisheries are not going to withstand heavy fishing pressure over time.”