Sand tiger sharks don’t look like the friendliest bunch. They’ve got “big gnarly teeth and really thick, stout bodies,” as Hap Fatzinger of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher describes. But despite their menacing look, the sand tiger shark is a docile, migratory species, and they often share the waters off the North Carolina coast with scuba divers.
That communion between divers and sharks helped researchers unlock a key to the species’s behaviour, and perhaps to its conservation.
Scientists with a multi-institutional collaboration found that female sand tiger sharks return to the same shipwrecks off the North Carolina coast, indicating these sites may be an important habitat for the stout fish.
Scientists from the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction & Conservation, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, among others, analyzed images submitted by divers and citizen scientists and compared spot patterns on the various sand tiger sharks. A number of those images were pulled from the Spot A Shark USA program led by the North Carolina Aquariums.
“It tells us that shipwrecks are potentially critical habitat for sand tiger shark. And our study findings really reinforce this idea that citizen science is an effective tool for documenting habitat use of shark species,” says Avery Paxton, a co-author of the study formerly with the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation and current visiting scholar at Duke University.
The sand tiger shark population was largely decimated in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Fatzinger, another co-author on the study, says that upwards of 75% of the estimated population was reduced mostly due to “highly intensive directed fishing activities before laws and regulations for the species were in place.”
By sorting out where the sharks tend to stop on their long migratory voyages, researchers and conservationists have one more tool for preserving the species.
Paxton welcomes anyone who takes images of sand tiger sharks in N.C. to send the photos to researchers with the Spot A Shark USA program.