The Symphony of Life
Since the beginning of life, nature has created a symphony of new creatures that inhabit her vast landscape. Creatures that can fly, disappear, or even create light. The notes of this symphony are inscribed in the score of DNA and orchestrated in the key of perfect harmony. The song that nature sings is about unity and diversity, what I will refer to as “biodiversity”. Biodiversity means that all living creatures are suitably balanced to the scale of their home landscape, which allows them to cope with changes to the scale of that landscape. The ability to change with the environment is called “adaptation” and there is no better animal that represents adaptation like the shark.
What special abilities do sharks have?
Sharks are extremely efficient in finding food. This is because their speed and power are enhanced with some special abilities that give them a competitive advantage over their prey. Sharks have a unique color pattern that gives them camouflage that conceals them from the vision of their prey. This type of camouflage is called “countershading”. In order to find their food, sharks have special sensory organs that allow them to detect the tiny vibrations from their prey, allowing them to quickly locate them. Both of these abilities increase the shark’s odds to be successful hunters! In addition to their adaptive immunity and remarkable capacity to heal even the most traumatic wounds, sharks are certainly among the greatest predators of all time!
Why is biodiversity so important?
These adaptations allow sharks to have a greater chance of survival, and the environment rewards those individuals that have these adaptations…but what happens when those individuals are taken out of a population? When the biodiversity of sharks is destroyed, they lose the ability to effectively change with their environment and thus, lose the adaptations that give them their special abilities. Not only can the sharks lose their hunting advantage, but they can also become more vulnerable to disease and the effects of climate change. Sadly, this reality is not just hypothetical.
People have consumed sharks for hundreds of years, but only recently have we begun to consume them unsustainably. Currently, the
global market for sharks is now accounted for in billions of USD, meaning that by any measure, the rate of depletion of sharks is far greater than the rate of replenishment. Some estimates predict that all fisheries may have collapsed within the next 30 to 50 years, but there is certainty that our current rate of consumption will cause endangerment. Endangerment means that even if our species still exist, their biodiversity is forever lost…the same rich biodiversity that gives our sharks their unique adaptations.
Recently, sharks in the Maledives lost the adaption that provides camouflage when they developed very unusual skin spots (Bruckner et al 2018) that appeared to be very similar to a genetic disorder called Leucism. The question is: Do these spots reduce the potential of survival for these sharks? I will be searching for the answer.
Who am I?
My name is Gibbs Kuguru and I study the DNA of sharks at Wageningen University & Research. My doctoral research will focus on the adaptations lost through the destruction of biodiversity caused by the manmade effects of overfishing and climate change. The sharks I’m following will come from the beautiful Maldivian archipelago supported by Ocean Dimensions on Kihaa Island in Baa Atoll. I will be using techniques combined from genetics and computer science to explore the genomes of sharks to help save their biodiversity; this is called “Conservation Genomics”. My research, funded in part by Shark Project Switzerland, will uncover the response these wild populations have towards human activities and their potential for survival. This will also serve as a model for the application of Genomics for Conservation Biology in Marine Ecosystems.
Thanks for your time and watch this space!
Addendum by Sharkproject Switzerland
Sharkproject Switzerland will initially support Gibbs Kuguru’s research project and doctoral thesis for four years. He will give regular updates on his project ‘Inbreeding and the Unexpected Presence of Leucism in Carcharhinus melanopterus’.
The research should take place in different stages. The field work in the Maldivian waters for several months. The work at the laboratory in Wageningen with genetic analyses, the interpretation and evaluation as well as the resulting recommendations for protection areas.
Sharkproject Switzerland is convinced that this project is an appropriate addition to the other projects ‘White Shark Nursery’, ‘Shark Safe Barrier’ and ‘Great White Mystery’. It is desirable if the results are also applied to other populations of blacktip reef sharks in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This research work can make a further contribution to the worldwide protection of sharks.
We are looking forward to this cooperation!