Wednesday, 17 February 2016

More Fisheries Pseudoscience




Another piece of shark fisheries propaganda has been published. Shark fisherman David Shiffman now claims it to be scientific fact, that most shark scientists believe that shark fishing and shark finning are the best ways to “manage” sharks, when done sustainably. The fact that most shark scientists work for the fishing industry is omitted. 

What true scientist would condone shark finning when it involves the waste of 95 percent of the shark, in a protein starved world? Shark finning has been documented to be responsible for the 25% of shark species currently threatened with extinction, but a little known fact is that the United States is the seventh worst shark finning nation. The paper even affirms that it was the shark fisheries scientists who were the most likely to be in favour of sustainable shark fishing as opposed to outright protection for sharks.

At about the same time as this paper was announced in the news, The Global Strategy for the management of sharks and rays (2015 to 2025) summarized their plan thus : 
“This Global Strategy aims to dramatically alter the current trajectory of shark and ray decline by promoting the protection and recovery of the most endangered species, advancing the understanding and conservation of all species and their critical habitats, and ensuring that the fisheries, trade and demand for these species shift from overexploitation towards sustainability.” (note 1)

When stated in context, one can see where working towards sustainable fishing practices is beneficial when the current practice is chronic overfishing. What is different about Shiffman's paper, is that it seeks to use the authority of science to manipulate public opinion to support shark fishing, and to weaken the efforts of shark advocates to protect them in other important ways. The very worrying point that shark meat is increasingly toxic due to the accumulation of poisons, including mercury, making sharks unfit food, is not even mentioned. The findings of a dangerous depletion of sharks by overfishing has been echoed every time an intensive global study on shark and ray depletion has been done.

NOAA (2011) itself states:
“The law calls for the United States to pursue an international ban on shark finning and to advocate improved data collection (including biological data, stock abundance, bycatch levels, and information on the nature and extent of shark finning and trade). Determining the nature and extent of shark finning is the key step toward reaching agreements to decrease the incidence of finning worldwide. “

In October 2014, in an article in the journal “Fisheries” Shiffman made another effort to give the ring of authority to fishing sharks, this time by promoting shark sports fishing in Florida. Though both bird fighting and dog fighting are illegal in Florida, he had no qualms about promoting the “fighting” and killing of sharks. 

Based on the findings that in French Polynesia, the biggest shark sanctuary in the world, one shark can be worth over 2 million dollars in its lifetime through shark diving, he recommended that Florida's sharks were similarly worthy through “catch and release,” which he argued was a good way for the state to make money!

Yet, for one shark to earn 2 million dollars for Florida, it would have to be fished 4000 times. This is calculated by dividing 2,000,000 dollars by 500 dollars—which is an average price charged by shark fishing charters to go out and catch a shark. The possible effects on the lives and biology of the sharks living there, as a result of being repeatedly “fought” nearly to death at this intensity, was not a subject that concerned him.

When questioned about it, it became clear that he had not even thought about the mathematics, though math is an important tool for other scientists. Nor could he come with any argument to back up his position. 

Sharks are not trout. They are large animals that have to swim continuously forward just to keep an adequate supply of oxygen moving over their gills, and their strong horizontal undulations are like a heartbeat, a powerful automatic motion they cannot stop. Their desperate efforts to escape death while pulling with so much force against a big shark hook piercing their faces or internal organs, can cause serious internal and facial injuries. And as any wildlife rehabilitator soon learns through experience, serious injuries to wild animals are usually fatal without the benefit of treatment and supportive care.

Further, examination of Shiffman's own data reveals that the near threatened blacktip shark is the most frequent species caught, and its survival rate from catch and release fishing is one of the lowest of all species shown. Blacktips and the endangered great hammerhead showed “high physiological disruption and low survival following release.” (note 2) In contradiction to this information, he states many times that the sharks are released “unharmed.” 

It is now a matter of record that industry will deliberately support a political platform for favoured, and often paid researchers, to influence public opinion. This was done, for example, by the tobacco industry and the oil industry.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce (NOAA), two million, seven hundred thousand sharks were caught by sports fishermen in the U.S.A. in 2011. Since those were only the killings that were reported, this figure could be low compared with the true numbers killed if the toll from private boats that were not reported, were added in. 

The fishing industry is a multi-billion dollar power that has taken control of both the wild fish populations, and the way these animals are viewed by the public. The result is that irregardless of available facts, their conclusions are always in favour of fishermen, and not “fish,” a word which fisheries will apply to all marine animals, including sharks, whales, and turtles.

Another example of unsubstantiated claims used to support the fishing industry is the Rose paper which sought to give scientific authority to the old tale that fish don't feel pain. Though Rose has never done a study to prove his allegations, and though his argument applies to all animals except man and possibly the great apes, and though it was published in a fishing journal and not a neurological journal, it received so much publicity that people got the idea that science had really proven that fish were too simple-minded to feel pain. 

Yet at the same time, other researchers had learned that fish have cognitive skills that rival those of birds and mammals, and they are likely conscious. Veterinarians who work on them systematically use pain relief, and have said that they found fish to be more sensitive than birds. It is more logical to believe those who treat and look after fish, than those who kill them.

Scientists have a duty to humanity and the search for objective truth, to remain open-minded. Arguments against established ideas are welcomed when they are based on evidence and logic, but when they are based on political agendas which are not supported by evidence, they fall under the definition of pseudo-science. 


note 1 : This was the result of a collaboration between the Shark Specialist Group of IUCN, and scientists from the major conservation organizations, following the SSG study, published last year, which found that 24% of sharks and rays are in danger of imminent extinction.

note 2 : According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, IUCN, great hammerheads are endangered, and blacktip sharks are near threatened.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Seeing is Believing : An Affectionate Shark

For the first time, affectionate behaviour in a shark has been documented. Jim Abernethy, of Palm Beach in Florida, filmed his reunion with a tiger shark after a separation of two years.


Abernethy, owner and operator of Scuba Adventures in Florida, had gained the shark's trust through gentle touches, initially to remove five hooks from her mouth. Since 2003, he has been using this method to remove hooks from many different species of sharks, as described in this former article about him, here.

The sharks he helped responded by cooperating, and would return for more affection as is seen so clearly in his video with this tiger shark. Abernethy's achievement was only possible because of his dedication to getting to know these mysterious and very unusual animals, while spending so much of his time on location where he could see them almost daily. As the first dive operator to show that sharks are peaceful animals, Jim always treated them with respect and affection. He spends most of his time on his liveaboard ship, The Shear Water, diving with sharks at sites in the vicinity of the Bahamas, and is on land for only about 40 days a year.

Though divers have understood for decades that sharks are not the demons of the sea as promoted by the media, the long standing bias against them has lived on, and shark attack mania is alive and well, in spite of decades of accumulating evidence that sharks are far less aggressive than the predators we are familiar with on land. Though increasing numbers of researchers are finding that a variety of marine animals are sentient, fisheries science continues to affirm that this is not the case. The argument is summarized here. Abernethy had removed five hooks from Tarantino's mouth initially, so the shark's reaction also strongly supports the argument that she appreciated the relief from pain.

I never got photographic evidence of affectionate behaviour in my sharks, mostly because nearly all of my study took place before I got an underwater camera. (Its hard to believe now, in the age of digital photography, how much more difficult it was to get underwater photos before). That is why it means so much to me that this behaviour has now been recorded. Even people who are willing to consider that sharks might have negative emotions such as fear or rage, find it less believable that they could have positive emotions such as happiness or affection.

With traditional science denying feelings in these animals, it provides evidence that some updates are needed! Anyway, this is a first, and a wonderful intimate look at the natural gestures of a tiger shark. Enjoy!

(c) Ila France Porcher 

Tuesday, 5 January 2016

SHARKS DON'T BITE like we do

Though sharks have gained a mythical reputation for being biters, their behaviour in nature is the opposite of what we would expect from the vicious animals depicted in the media. I had many opportunities to observe sharks under circumstances in which I expected them to bite, as a dog, cat, horse, or bird would tend to do. Yet they did not. 

All other species, wild and tame, with whom I had the intimacy I shared with sharks, had bitten me sooner or later, either by accident or in a fit of pique; even my pet dog sometimes grabs my hand in her teeth along with the offered cookie. 

Further, while the blackfin reef sharks I knew enjoyed roaming with favourite companions, I never saw them fighting with each other. They had friends but no enemies !

For years people had told me, and I half believed myself, that one evening I would be bitten and would bleed to death, or faint and drown. Since I was alone far from shore as night was falling, I could expect no one to save me, and these circumstances enhanced a tendency to react with darkening consciousness and soaring terror at times. 

The graceful creatures were the colour of the twilight waters, and as night fell, they became just motions in the shadows. As if they knew they had an advantage, it was then that they became emboldened, and would suddenly shoot forward faster than my eyes could follow them--the speed at which a shark can suddenly move, is one of the startling things about them.

So I had long acquaintance with the phenomenon of fear. Often it took all my psychological force to compose my mind in order to overcome it. 

Occasionally, things went wrong--the boat overturned in high winds, or my camera fell overboard, for example--and I would find myself in tossing waters opaque with blood and excited sharks, in a situation for which I was unprepared. Yet, no matter what happened, no shark bit me, time after time. 

Why had none of those hundreds of sharks of four different species, some many times my size, ever bitten me? I would watch my favourite, Martha, coil through the sea in front of my face, snapping up the treats I was freeing for her while ignoring my hands and the little plastic bag I had brought them in, and be convinced that it could not be a random coincidence. 

There had to be a reason. 

One night I accidentally kicked a shark with all my force, not realizing that the six foot animal was between my legs as I finned upward to reach into my kayak. Expecting her to turn and slash, I peered underwater to scrutinize the situation, but neither her speed nor her trajectory changed as she curvetted on to circle me. 

It was then I realized that I was expecting a reaction from a shark that was based on my knowledge of mammals. Like the other species we know well, we readily bite in fear. Anyone who has been seriously assaulted knows that the instinct to bite in self defence is very thinly veiled beneath our civilized daily lives. Birds too, readily bite in aggression and fear. It is a reaction that we take for granted--it is an important part of our personal defence system, which is instinctive at its root, and reinforced by countless learning incidents, beginning in infancy, and continuing throughout our lives. 

But that night, I realized that these requiem sharks must not share this strong tendency to bite, either from fear or aggression. Separated from us evolutionarily by a gulf of time spanning half a billion years, and having evolved in an oceanic environment, sharks are not territorial, and don't seem to have developed the same tendency that mammals have, to bite in fear or aggression.

It seemed possible that our fear of sharks is based on the intrinsic knowledge that we, and animals like us, readily bite, and we assume that sharks do too. With their big mouths and shocking sets of teeth, our imaginations are undone as we consider them opening to bite us.

But they don't. 

They even seem to have an inhibition against biting companion animals. They don't regard us as prey, and apparently view us as other creatures who share their ecological community. This is apparent, for example, during shark dives. 

Doc Gruber wrote back with these comments when I asked him about this subject : 
“After years and years of observing sharks in competitive feeding situations I have become impressed by how little aggression is shown by these animals. I often read in books when I was young that sharks can go into a frenzy and will attack and kill one another. I find this to be exactly opposite of what occurs. What I see is that sharks when competitively feeding are almost gentle and balletic. For example, if two sharks rush at a piece of bait and one clamps onto the other's head they will carefully unclamp, back up, and move off. They do not bite or hurt one another. 
“Aggression between sharks of the same species seems to me to be very low; they are very tolerant of each other. White sharks might be the exception but at a big whale carcass they do not seem aggressive. 
“When being handled, some species will definitely bite and others won't bite no matter how much you try. The lemon shark and blacktip shark are two examples of sharks that will definitely bite if you manhandle them. Bull sharks and hammerheads will not bite no matter what, and the same goes for tiger sharks. With tiger sharks, young ones will try to bite, older ones will not.”
Dive club owners, who work with sharks daily year after year, report the same phenomenon of non-aggression among feeding sharks. A possible exception has been noted at certain multi-species commercial shark feedings, where over long periods of time, and intensive daily provisioning, certain species of sharks--those that are larger and more pushy--become more numerous, while other species tend to be pushed out, yet biting among them is still so rare as to be practically unknown.

Even the great white shark has been shown by Dr. Peter Klimley to ritualize conflict when ownership of a seal prey comes into question. Through a remarkable series of videos taken of feeding great white sharks, he documented how the shark who splashes water farthest, with a slash of its tail, wins the seal. Thus a physical battle for the seal is avoided. Given their dentition, a battle between great whites would gravely harm both sharks. (See Klimley's wonderful book, The Secret Life of Sharks)

Within the community of sharks I studied in a lagoon in Tahiti, it was the nurse sharks who were the most aggressive. Still it was very rare that one would aggress a blackfin who came too close; the blackfin would change direction. The reef sharks did not menace the nurse sharks.

The lack of aggression in the submarine community was one of the first things I noticed when I began watching sharks interacting, especially in the presence of food. Only about three times in all those years, did I see a large blackfin appear to make a snapping motion toward a smaller one, but in each case I was able to see that the small one did not suffer a bite as a result. At each session, the sharks swooped around together, often touching, with never a sign that the smaller ones were afraid of the bigger ones or avoided them. 

This is the opposite of what happens in societies in which a dominance-subordinance hierarchy exists. Two examples of such societies are those of chickens and humans.

Sometimes, a tiny blackfin pup would make off with a scrap, for example, closely followed by one of the biggest, a shark three times as long, and many times the baby's volume. But, each time, the baby continued on its way and ate, while the big one made no effort to take its food, and treated the tiny shark just the same way it would treat one of its own size. 

Further, apart from mating wounds on females during the season of reproduction, the sharks did not appear with bite marks on them.

Whitetip reef sharks and sicklefin lemon sharks also attended my sessions at times, and their appearance had no effect on the harmony in the site. Once I watched a lemon shark the size of a horse slowly come up behind a nurse shark pup who was lying on the sand munching on a little scrap. The pup was the size and colour of a human baby with long fins, and the lemon shark could just about have inhaled it whole--yet, it passed on. The huge animal did not even take the baby's scrap!

My sessions ended as darkness enveloped the scene, and only the nurse sharks remained, languidly writhing around the site amid the flitting fish, until it was carpeted in nurse sharks. They would scrape and suck out the contents of the fish heads, wriggling about in clouds of sand, wrasses and yellow perch. 

When it was almost too dark to see them, a massive, pale form would appear off in the coral, weaving in and out of view as she floated cloud-like through the shadows, waving an unbelievable tail. In slow motion, she would waltz through the site, her fins spread wide, as she pressed the water left, then right, as if to an unheard rhapsody. She was the biggest nurse shark, with a body massive as a draft horse, a magnificent creature, who would undulate with her beautiful, lazy ballet through the twilight surroundings until I left.

One night, a two metre nurse shark was lying nearby under a coral formation, close beside a Javanese moray eel of about the same length. The two of them were touching all along their sides, the nurse shark eating, the eel looking calmly out at me. For two species renowned for their aggression and even for being dangerous, the sight was counter-intuitive, enhancing the feeling of being in a community in which a certain camaraderie existed, one whose true qualities no human mind could conceive. 

The unusual behaviour of the sharks points to the way their societies are dramatically different from those of the animals that we know best, a subject I will be writing more about, in time.

(c) Ila France Porcher
 ~ author of The Shark Sessions ~

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

JIM ABERNETHY CONFRONTS NOAA



Jim Abernethy, Florida's top shark advocate, has declared WAR on NOAA. Please read this important announcement, and lend your support!
Good Afternoon Friends of Sharks as well as Mr. Guy Dubeck of NOAA,
My entire adult life has been spent fighting for sharks! I have watched our species slaughter sharks at an unprecedented rate worldwide, all to supply the Asian demand for shark fin soup! In the history of our planet no other species has ever been decimated by another species the way sharks are by humans.
In the last 50 years over 90% of all large sharks have been removed. A perfect example of this is the oceanic white tip shark, which 50 years ago Cousteau's scientists stated "The most abundant animal on the planet, over 100 lbs in weight is clearly the oceanic white tip shark!" - today not a single ocean boasts more than 1% of that population. 
According to the Ocean Preservation Society, the results of this massive removal of apex predators on our planet is catastrophic and significantly impacting all life on the planet. The cascading trophic collapse felt by their removal is having deep reaching negative impacts on our only biosphere, Earth! Our oceans, the life blood of our planet, are failing right in front of our eyes! We’re at a tipping point, where if we don't change our practices, we will be the cause of Earth's next Extinction. 
Today I am writing to plead with you to help us stop NOAA's new plan for so-called "Shark Management", shifting their shark fishery from the summer, when there are fewer sharks, to January 1st, when sharks are at their all time high numbers! This will most certainly decimate the less than 10% of the sharks left in our waters from their mismanagement that already depleted 90% of all large sharks!
Accordingly, I am renaming NOAA - NO OCEAN ALIVE ANYWHERE! 
I cannot understand how this can be allowed to happen when we know so much about these creatures and their plight to survive. Extinction is forever, and NOAA seems to be doing everything they can to overturn the state’s interests that are doing their best to protect them! 
American NOAA shark researchers caught and tagged 2,835 sharks along the East Coast this spring, a record number which they say reflects a growing population thanks to legal protection. Lisa Natanson, a scientist who leads the survey at the Narragansett Laboratory of NOAA Fisheries' Northeast Fisheries Science Centre, said: "I think that's what turned it around - effective management. Just the decrease in fishing pressure on these species has helped quite a bit." This statement only reflects the last decade. Are we to ignore the previous 50 years where we already removed 90% of all sharks?
By ignoring the statements of their own scientist, is NOAA really looking out for the best interest of our planet, our oceans, and our species? Obviously, they are not!
I believe they are only concerned with the commercial shark fishing interests that line their pockets with money – this will continue to impact our planet in a negative manner until the ecosystem is completely destroyed! 
I'm wondering if we allow this to happen, when we look back at this catastrophic mistake decades from now, will NOAA be remembered as my new acronym for them. NO OCEAN ALIVE ANYWHERE!
Will Guy Dubeck, from NOAA, be remembered for as the man who led NOAA to destroy our ocean ecosystems? And consequently the future of generations to come? Will NOAA be remembered as the agency that tried to undermine the people's best interests whom have already passed laws declaring their states SHARK FIN FREE?
As we all should know by now, No blue, No green - the ocean is our life support system, producing 50% of the oxygen we breathe and more than 60% of the protein we eat.
Dr. Silvia Earle, formerly NOAA’s chief scientist, says “We have been far too aggressive about extracting ocean wildlife, not appreciating that there are limits and even points of no return.” 
I believe we are at the point where we need to take a stand and put an end to the commercial shark fishery in United States. This non-substance harvesting has no benefit, except to those who profit from it - people who do not care about the future health of our planet.
In 2013, NOAA shifted its so-called "Shark Management" to January 1st for lemon sharks, a decision that essentially wiped out the world's only lemon shark aggregation here in Jupiter, Florida. They did this despite many of the world's top scientists pleading with them not to do so. Since they took this foolish action, no lemon sharks have been seen aggregating naturally. Have we not all learned these valuable lessons from their past mismanagement, even after the shark scientists recommended against it? Obviously NOAA has not, or the shark fishery lobbyist, pay them plenty to undermine the health of our oceans!
To me, I find it strange that NOAA is still trying to manage a shark fishery...case in point! If I was your money manager with 100 million dollars 50 years ago, and today I only had 10 million left, would you still be allowing me to MANAGE your money? 
Face the Facts, NOAA shark management has FAILED MISERABLY! We should give up all thoughts of conservation of sharks! We are in a last ditch effort to recover from NOAA's mismanagement! At this late hour, we’re no longer talking shark conservation management, it should be called what it really is, a last minute attempt at PRESERVATION with the few animals that have survived all NOAA's failed attempts at management! 
FIRE YOUR MONEY MANAGER, FIRE NOAA and lets all work hard at preserving what few animals this mismanagement has left us, while we still can! We are all connected here on planet earth! Our diversity of animal and plant life is what keeps us all alive!
Sharks are the controlling factor that keeps our oceans in balance and healthy! Over 50% of the air we breathe and over 60% of the protein we eat, comes directly, or indirectly, from our oceans! We all depend on healthy oceans for this entire planets survival! If you desire healthy oceans, why would you remove from them one of the largest controlling factors that has kept our oceans in balance since before the dinosaurs were here! 
Sharks are well documented as carrying high levels of mercury, a poison with devastating consequences to man. Scientist have also now documented that sharks carry the same compounds that have been blamed for causing brain degenerative diseases, like Lou Gehrig's and alzheimer's disease! Which of your friends, family, or US citizen's would NOAA like us to feed this poison to? Why would we have a fishery for an animal that is quite simply, poison? All the world's health organizations are pretty much in agreement, "Whenever possible avoid eating shark for health reasons!" 
Why would we kill an integral part of the ecosystem for a one time economic gain of a few hundred dollars for each animal! Our neighboring country, the Bahamas has a thriving shark ecosystem that results in an 80 million dollar per year economic gain, just from looking at sharks in their environment everyday! It is well documented that each shark is worth roughly $250,000 alive over the course of it's life! Bahamas also has a thriving marine ecosystem because of their foresight to protect their offshore marine resources. Can't we learn anything on an economic value alone?
I am declaring WAR on NOAA, and asking all of you to join me, until they act responsibly for the best interests of our people and not the commercial shark fishery. If this mismanagement is allowed, it will jeopardize the future existence of our planet, including our own human existence! Please share this with everyone as we don't have time thanks to NOAA to respond to their announcement (Nov 30, 2015) by January 1, when the last of the 10% of our sharks will most certainly be wiped out, Thanks to NOAA and Guy Dubeck
Please click here to sign these important petitions ASAP at:
At the moment the 3 petitions have roughly 19,000 signature in roughly 1 week
AND please email Guy DuBeck at NOAA with your thoughts on this decision: guy.dubeck@noaa.gov. You can call Guy Dubeck at 301-427-8503. On twitter at NOAAFisheries @NOAAFisheries
Share this plea with everyone to help us put a stop to this further mismanagement from NOAA, before we wind up with...
NO OCEAN ALIVE ANYWHERE! 
To join us in this fight to save our friends in the sea, go to Facebook.com/wildlifeVOICE1 and like us
If you have not already, please watch Racing Extinction on Discovery Channel to see what we must do in order to alter the current direction of our planet into a sustainable direction! Let's use this Christmas time to make peace with earth, while we still can.

Friday, 25 September 2015

Fear of Sharks? A Comment on Aggression and Compassion in Humans and Animals

When I give talks about my study of shark behaviour, the most common question I am asked is : “But weren't you afraid of the sharks?”

Well of course, but to me, those sharks were simply wild animals. I had often been fearful, during my long history of observing wild animals, but never had an animal threatened me.

On the contrary, I learned at an early age that it was the men in the forest, not bears, not mountain lions, not snakes, who were really dangerous. When I was growing up in North America, there was one serial killer after another in the local news. Every couple of months, another girl or young woman would be found, naked, bruised, and bloody after a nightmare death, in some dark corner of the forest, to the shock of her weeping family.

Those were the monsters who lay in wait along my pathways, as a young wildlife artist and ethologist. The first time I had to run for my life, I was only four years old. At twelve, I was grabbed by a strange man while walking home through a local wood, and only escaped after a desperate struggle. Every few years, there was a terrifying, life-threatening incident, always with a man, never with an animal.

Except for one time, and that animal spared me, though it had just been mortally wounded by a man.

It happened at the end of September five years ago. I had been travelling by bicycle across France, and stopped for the night in La Forêt d'Ancenis. But I noticed that in that forest only, no birds sang.

As it grew dark, volleys of gunfire began to shatter the stillness, and with the fall of night, came an alarming crescendo—many big guns were being fired repeatedly nearby. The deafening sound went on and on, as if I was in a war.

Then suddenly an animal came crashing through the trees, and in the charcoal shadows I could scarcely make out something the size of a large dog. It veered around me. The sound of its feet striking the ground sounded like a horse running very unevenly. Perhaps one limb was useless, so it came down hard on the other. Its voice was a series of high barks, but it was not a dog. It settled on the ground nearby, where it lay yipping and crying, as more animals could be heard, crashing through the woods from the direction of the gunfire.

The night had enveloped us when a much larger creature—a different species—came crashing, groaning loudly with each step. It came right up to me and began snorting and pawing the ground in front of my face, as I gazed up into blackness from my sleeping bag, every nerve alight with terror. For long minutes it went on striking the ground, sniffing and exhaling in sharp bursts between its agonized groans—my impression was of an animal the size of a bull. Fully expecting to be mauled at any moment, I was awed when, very gradually, its intensity began to ebb. There was more time between each snort, and finally it took a step back. Then it retreated a few metres away, and lay down, where it went on moaning and crying to itself.

The two wounded and terrified creatures had settled down near me, as if they thought that they had found safety! They knew people. No such wild animals lived in that forest—no wild animal would behave like that. Wild animals would have known where to go to hide. These had no idea what to do. It was clear that they had been brought there, and likely released just before the gunfire had begun. A large gathering of men had fired at them repeatedly with big guns at close range, apparently just to terrify and hurt them as they fled into the forest.

One of them passed me at a canter from time to time, crashing through the darkness and yelling in an unearthly voice. It was not as badly injured as the others—all four legs still worked, and its lungs and internal organs were also functioning.

I called the police, but they were unconcerned. They refused to notify the hunters that I was there. It was the killers, who were in the right, according to French society. I had seen the graceful lawns of the Château d'Ancenis les Bois, which lay beyond the gunfire, swans and ducks floating on the pond in front of the castle. 

They were the nobles of society. Noble? The wounded buck, bear, or bull, whatever it was, had offered me more mercy than it had been shown, and in the morning, these cruel men would be coming with their dogs to satiate their sadism on their victims, with the blessing of the local police. I lay awake all night, listening to the groans and cries of the animals, and thinking.

You can do a lot of thinking during the black hours of a night. For a student of wild animal behaviour, the conclusion was hard to avoid. My own species was the most violent, cruel and dangerous one of all. And it was not just the activities of serial killers and recreational hunters in the balance. I had regularly witnessed irrational, violent, and cruel behaviour among individuals I knew. In families it was common, and often accepted by other family members, so from there it was a short step to acceptance in school, where bullies dominated the scene. But though they caused a great deal of suffering in their victims, the situation was accepted by other students and the teachers, so the scene was set for also accepting injustice in society, where we are expected to turn a blind eye to countless injustices and cruelties, from agribusiness to war.

Scientists have found through animal experimentation, that their lab animals are more compassionate than they are, for example, and any examination of history shows centuries of bloody conflict with no counterpart in nature.

Psychologist Bob Altemeyer, specialist in human aggression, wrote in his book, The Authoritarians, “...someone who wished you dead would have to try three or four complete strangers ... before he found someone who would hold you down and kill you with electric shocks.”


In recent decades, the study of ethology, or natural wild animal behaviour, has revealed universal tendencies that are common across the various families of complex animals. These show that our violence and aggression evolved with us from the animal state. While humanity has over-estimated the force of instinct in animals, it seems that it has under-estimated the same power in humans. Anyone can enter murder-mode given the right circumstances. 

And now, with the science fiction weapons available to us to use on those we don't like, our future safety as a species is called into question. What might have once helped us to succeed—the instantaneous and excessive violent response—now threatens us with extinction. But, this angle on humanity is only rarely mentioned.

Biologist David Carrier, of the University of Utah, was quoted recently in LiveScience as saying, "My personal opinion is that Western society, as a whole, is in mass denial about the magnitude of the problem that violence represents for the future. We are peace-loving and want to believe that the violence and transgressions of the past will not return, but recent history and current events illustrate how easy it is for humans to respond with interpersonal and intergroup violence."

Some writers speak of an "awakening" before it is too late, as human destruction threatens the very health of the planet. Such a phenomenon would necessarily involve the conscious choice of humanity to over-ride their instincts and use their intellect to make decisions. Can a species change? Perhaps that is the final test of the human spirit.  

So, to answer those who wonder about my fear of sharks, after some of the homosaps I have known, sharks were easy, I mean really simple, to deal with.

(c) Ila France Porcher 2015

Friday, 18 September 2015

New Shark Book Coming Soon!


One of the illustrations : the eating shark "inhales" as it takes the food--note jets from gills

My new book, SHARKS | Their Natural Behaviour sets forth fifteen years of underwater observations of the sharks I studied in Tahiti. I wrote it for anyone interested in shark behaviour, or sentience in animals in general. My study followed the precepts of cognitive ethology, and during hundreds of hours of underwater observation, over a period of fifteen years, I tried to understand what sharks are really like. 

As marine animals, separated from us by half a billion years of evolution, their reality comes to them through very different senses, of which no human mind can conceive. Yet, they showed clear signs of intelligent awareness, and a range of feelings, including excitement, fear, happiness, and rage. In spite of the vast gulf of time between us, their sentience was clear to see. 

Indeed, people in the future may see humans as just one of countless intelligently aware, and specialized life forms on this planet, none superior to another, and all interdependent in the beautiful, transcendent web of life.

I found it very hard to write, since the ordering of a vast amount of material on many species was necessary. In contrast, The Shark Sessions was written chronologically, which gave it a natural order.

But I discovered Hack 16, a trick from a book called Mind Performance Hacks--Tips and Tools for Overclocking your Brain, by Ron Hale-Evans. If you have ever felt attracted to Sudoku or word puzzles, this all-encompassing book of Hacks will be your final satisfaction--every sort of mental hack ever discovered is in it, including some very unusual ones.

Anyway, for organizing masses of information, Hack 16 worked like a miracle. Twenty-four hours after I discovered it, I had this inter-tangled myriad of shark actions ordered into little groupings from which the chapters soon emerged, creating an easy flow from one subject to another.

Having spent the summer doing the illustrations, its ready for the final polish. If you would like to read and review it for me, I will be delighted to hear from you! 



After taking the food, the shark shakes it and rises...

Ila France Porcher

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Video By Shark Expert Ila France Porcher, Available For Shark Week 2015






The Shark Sessions” relates the story of sharks who were Porcher's companions for many years in Tahiti. When they were finned and massacred by a company from Singapore, she wrote down their story so that the world would find out : what they were like, and what had happened to them. Her powerful mini-documentary is now available.

[Wilmington, NC July 15, 2015] Shark expert Ila France Porcher has announced the release of a new video mini-documentary to coincide with Shark Week 2015. Porcher is the author of 'The Shark Sessions: My Sunset Rendezvous'. The book presents the story of her long-term ethological study of reef sharks in Tahiti, and the resulting findings, against the background of the uneasy society surrounding it. Intelligence in wild animals in general, and sharks in particular, is the major theme.

"In 2004, I was interviewed by the BBC for Discovery's 'Shark Week' regarding the evidence for thinking in sharks that I had found during my underwater study of their behaviour," Porcher stated. "For years, I had been keeping track of more than 600 sharks who passed through the area, and could recognize 300 on sight. 

“With the certainty that comes with repeatedly verified, first hand knowledge of their behaviour, I had learned that individual sharks could be easily distinguished, not only by their appearance, but because they each had distinctive ways of behaving. I was able to report that: 

• each shark is a unique individual.
• behaviour patterns that had been considered automatic and purely instinctive, such as roaming, reactions to sudden events, and their responses to other sharks and to me, were actually flexible and varied at different times.
• they showed a range of emotional states including fear, rage, curiosity, excitement, and happiness.
• they treated people, and other sharks, as individuals.


"From my long association with with the resident sharks who accompanied me during my observation sessions, I learned that sharks can develop companionships with people if the person approaches them with patience and calmness so that they can let go of their fear.

But Shark Week left out my urgent message that those sharks were actually being finned and were in need of protection, and omitted my findings. The presenter stated, 'Ila claims that these sharks have personalities, but the jury's still out on that.'

"But the jury was not out. Cognitive thought in fish was beginning to be recognized, and my findings that sharks were capable of it too, had already been presented at a scientific conference by then. Since that time, more and more discoveries have been made about the sentience of a wide variety of oceanic life.

“The discovery that sharks are intelligently aware, and are pursuing lives of meaning to themselves, has startling implications. It changes our perception of them, and of their place in nature, as well as ours. Yet, these scientific facts are being ignored, and many to continue to present sharks as brutal man-eating killers.”

So she created a mini-documentary to complement the Shark Week entertainment this year, which shows actual footage of the sharks she studied, and some surprising shark behaviour.

Ila France Porcher is available for media interviews and can be reached by email at ilafranceporcher@gmail.com. Her mini documentary is available on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hryPvS5cmqM

More information is available at her website at http://ilafranceporcher.wix.com/author.

About Ila France Porcher:

Ila France Porcher is a self-taught, published ethologist. She grew up in British Columbia, Canada, and at an early age became fascinated by watching and drawing wild animals. As a result, she naturally became a wildlife artist, and in time began documenting the behaviour of the animals she painted, being especially intrigued by actions suggesting intelligence and cognition.

In Tahiti she found sharks to be the first wild animals who came to her instead of fleeing. They were so intriguing that she launched an intensive study of them, systematically observing and recording their behaviour. Following the precepts of the field of cognitive ethology, and later with the guidance of world class marine ethologist Dr. Arthur A. Myrberg Jr., University of Miami, she learned to interpret their behaviour. Part of her study was subsequently published in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Biology, and some of her observations are considered to be the first documented cases of cognition in sharks. She is credited with the discovery of a way to study these much maligned predators that does not involve killing them, and was dubbed “the Jane Goodall of Sharks,” for her investigation of their intelligent behaviour in the wild, while giving a presentation about them at the University of Miami.

- See more at:

http://www.freepublicitygroup.com/news/release_ila_porcher_shark_week_jul115/#sthash.RcrOyrtd.dpuf




By Shark Expert Ila France Porcher, Author Of 'The Shark Sessions', Available For Shark Week 2015

“The Shark Sessions” relates the story of sharks who were Porcher's companions for many years in Tahiti. When they were finned and massacred by a company from Singapore, she wrote down their story so that the world would find out : what they were like, and what had happened to them. Her powerful mini-documentary is now available.



Author Ila France Porcher[Wilmington, NC July 15, 2015] Shark expert Ila France Porcher has announced the release of a new video mini-documentary to coincide with Shark Week 2015. Porcher is the author of 'The Shark Sessions: My Sunset Rendezvous'. The book presents the story of her long-term ethological study of reef sharks in Tahiti, and the resulting findings, against the background of the uneasy society surrounding it. Intelligence in wild animals in general, and sharks in particular, is the major theme.
"In 2004, I was interviewed by the BBC for Discovery's 'Shark Week' regarding the evidence for thinking in sharks that I had found during my underwater study of their behaviour," Porcher stated. "For years, I had been keeping track of more than 600 sharks who passed through the area, and could recognize 300 on sight.
“With the certainty that comes with repeatedly verified, first hand knowledge of their behaviour, I had learned that individual sharks could be easily distinguished, not only by their appearance, but because they each had distinctive ways of behaving. I was able to report that:
•    each shark is a unique individual.
•    behaviour patterns that had been considered automatic and purely instinctive, such as roaming, reactions to sudden events, and their responses to other sharks and to me, were actually flexible and varied at different times.
•    they showed a range of emotional states including fear, rage, curiosity, excitement, and happiness.
•    they treated people, and other sharks, as individuals.

ila_porcher_cover"From my long association with with the resident sharks who accompanied me during my observation sessions, I learned that sharks can develop companionships with people if the person approaches them with patience and calmness so that they can let go of their fear.
But Shark Week  left out my urgent message that those sharks were actually being finned and were in need of protection, and omitted my findings. The presenter stated, 'Ila claims that these sharks have personalities, but the jury's still out on that.'
"But the jury was not out. Cognitive thought in fish was beginning to be recognized, and my findings that sharks were capable of it too, had already been presented at a scientific conference by then. Since that time, more and more discoveries have been made about the sentience of a wide variety of oceanic life.
“The discovery that sharks are intelligently aware, and are pursuing lives of meaning to themselves, has startling implications. It changes our perception of them, and of their place in  nature, as well as ours. Yet, these scientific facts are being ignored, and many to continue to present sharks as brutal  man-eating killers.”
So she created a mini-documentary to complement the Shark Week entertainment this year, which shows actual footage of the sharks she studied, and some surprising shark behaviour.
Ila France Porcher is available for media interviews and can be reached by email at ilafranceporcher@gmail.com. Her mini documentary is available on Youtube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hryPvS5cmqM. More information is available at her website at http://ilafranceporcher.wix.com/author.
About  Ila France Porcher:
Ila France Porcher is a self-taught, published ethologist. She grew up in British Columbia, Canada, and at an early age became fascinated by watching and drawing wild animals. As a result, she naturally became a wildlife artist, and in time began documenting the behaviour of the animals she painted, being especially intrigued by actions suggesting intelligence and cognition.
In Tahiti she found sharks to be the first wild animals who came to her instead of fleeing. They were so intriguing that she launched an intensive study of them, systematically observing and recording their behaviour. Following the precepts of the field of cognitive ethology, and later with the guidance of world class marine ethologist Dr. Arthur A. Myrberg Jr., University of Miami, she learned to interpret their behaviour. Part of her study was subsequently published in the peer-reviewed journal Marine Biology, and some of her observations are considered to be the first documented cases of cognition in sharks. She is credited with the discovery of a way to study these much maligned predators that does not involve killing them, and was dubbed “the Jane Goodall of Sharks,” for her investigation of their intelligent behaviour in the wild, while giving a presentation about them at the University of Miami.

- See more at: http://www.freepublicitygroup.com/news/release_ila_porcher_shark_week_jul115/#sthash.RcrOyrtd.dpuf

Monday, 6 July 2015

Sharks Enjoy Divers as Divers Enjoy Sharks!

Sharks are interested in others, and their spontaneous gestures toward divers show their curiosity toward other members of their submarine community, including divers who show interest in them. The interest is returned.

Thus it is possible through photos to capture the eye to eye gaze of these mysterious creatures of the deep, when for just few moments of their day, they meet us.
Recognition of others as individuals has long been established in fish and sharks, as in other social species. As well as knowing others, sharks demonstrate by their actions that they recognize themselves as being separate from others and observable. To this degree they are self aware.

The photo shows one of my shark companions coming to greet me when she found me in the lagoon. She looks at me with first one eye and then the other as she approaches with her gently undulating movement.


She nearly touches my face with hers, then turns to swim away at an angle over my shoulder.
I gave her a treat after she had followed me for a long time, and snapped a photo as she accelerated away shaking her scrap. If you look closely, you can see her right eye looking back at me. Sharks, like horses, can look straight behind them as well as in front due to their serpentine motion. 

This tiger shark had come over to look at me and when she left, she turned and glanced at me behind her, with one eye after another.
Here a tiger shark had come to see me, then swam away and suddenly turned back..
 She swam straight back to me

and came to look at me again. 

This curiosity seemed to be associated with the shark's interest in the other large animals in the region. Her focus on my eyes is typical of all of the close approaches of this sort by sharks that I have witnessed.

I have often come across statements by people, especially fishermen, who were approached by a shark in this way, who claimed that the shark was "attacking," or "would have attacked" had the shark not been shot or blown up with a power head, or something like that. But the real reason for these close approaches is the natural, social curiosity of this intelligent animal.

Bull sharks will come for a friendly look, too.

So will Caribbean reef sharks.
And lemon sharks.
If so many different species of shark will do this, the behaviour pattern is likely wide-spread among them. Curiosity that is not based on a biological need is a sign of intelligence, and in this case is apparently linked to a wish to socialize.

A communication passes through a shared gaze in eye contact, and it seems important to sharks,  given this common behaviour with divers, as well as to us mammals.
The book I wrote about my studies, The Shark Sessions, describes the natural behaviour of sharks in detail.
(c) Ila France Porcher 2015




Saturday, 4 July 2015

Sad Memorial to a Finned Shark

 
Its been a long time since I wrote and posted this tribute to Madonna, my number one shark, when she was finned. It is she with whom I was swimming in this illustration on the cover of my book, The Shark Sessions.

So here it is again.

Ode to Madonna

"In just the last couple of months, waiting for the law to be passed to protect the sharks, the last of the older, mature females I first met some years ago have vanished from my part of the lagoon. This includes my number one shark, Madonna.

Madonna was the first shark to meet my kayak when I arrived in the lagoon in the mornings. She was nearly six feet long, steel grey, and heavily built. When I dove down and swam to her, she would come to me and look into my mask.

Meeting her by chance in the lagoon, she would swim to me when I called her, and circle, spiralling toward me til she was within arms' reach. But she did not like me to swim with her. She would set off on a sinuous path, and when I followed, she would come back, often turn sideways, accelerate and stop, or just vanish into the blue, but usually not before we had gone to meet up with one or two of her friends. Never could I detect the slightest sign between them as they passed, but I didn't think it could be chance that we had met up with them, knowing that they were her friends.

Beautiful Madonna was not one of our brightest lights. When I brought a treat for her, as I always did when she returned to her home range after breeding or birthing, I would sometimes have to throw it for her time after time before she could locate it, and often one of her friends would coil through the water to snatch it the moment it left my hand, a trick poor Madonna could never manage. Once I spent 45 minutes in terrible current just trying to get her treat to her.

Nevertheless, she would hopefully come to me for a bite. When I had nothing, and was actually promenading in the lagoon with her friend Martha, she would come charging in. I would fin backward, till we were swimming nose to nose, me on my back and her on top of me, while Martha circled us, watching. Madonna would finally give up when she realized I had nothing with me, and me and Martha would go on alone.

Madonna did this once when it was almost too dark to see, having arrived with a group of rather macho males from the ocean. She behaved as if she were starving to death, having just had her babies. When she soared up to my face all her companions did too, and while I could guide her around me with my hand, I didn't have enough hands to push away half a dozen sharks at once, and didn't want to be rammed by the strangers or have my mask knocked off in the dark.

Feeling sorry for my poor shark, who did look awfully emaciated after birthing, I returned as soon as conditions permitted, and trailed scent through her home range, followed by a tiny juvenile who always followed me, just out of sight, at that time. Finally, Madonna glided in, the juvenile now flitting excitedly at her side, apparently more confident in the presence of the big shark.

As she circled, I tossed the food so it fell to the side of her swimway, and saw her target it, but she slowed, allowing the excited juvenile to get it first. Luckily I had brought enough for both. 

I spent so much time with Madonna, I can remember every gesture, every movement she would make in different moods.

We all read all the time about thousands of sharks being finned all over the world, but when the sharks meeting this shocking end are ones you have come to know, and with whom you have spent time for many years, sharks of whom you have grown fond, the psychological effect is more intense.

Just as it is disturbing to read in the paper that some dogs elsewhere were poisoned -- but if it is your dogs who were poisoned and died, you reel."
-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
You can form a companionship with a shark just as you can with a dog, and they are just as intelligent and sensitive. They should not be fished; they should not be finned. They are peaceful creatures and there is no need to fear them.

(c) Ila France Porcher



Saturday, 2 May 2015

Samuel H. 'doc' Gruber: Shark Science Pioneer


Doc Gruber began studying sharks in 1961, perhaps before any other scientist had done full-time research on a living shark. During his long career, he founded the Bimini Biological Field Station (Shark Lab), the Shark Specialist Group of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, (IUCN), a United Nations organization based in Switzerland, and the American Elasmobranch Society. He has published over 200 scientific papers, and his research is still ongoing today. 

His decision to study sharks was as unplanned as it was final.

Doc in 1957 with black grouper
As a young man growing up in Florida, he loved to dive, and often went off for weekends of scuba diving and spear fishing on a 30 metre schooner called the Blue Goose. The ship had belonged to Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) under the Nazis, and it had found its way to Miami when it was liberated at the end of World War II. A weekend of diving fun on the Blue Goose cost only seven dollars, and at that time, there were still big fish!

On one of these outings in 1958, Gruber had speared a grouper hiding in a submarine cave, and was emerging with it into open water when he saw a hammerhead shark approaching. It was the largest shark he had ever seen, and as it glided towards him, it seemed to be the size of a submarine! Sure that he was about to die, he plunged back into the cave with his fish, and found himself in the same position that the grouper had just been in, as he looked out. Watching in awe as the momentous shark passed him, he was seized with the desire to know what sort of an animal it was.

When he returned to the university, he asked his professor what was known about sharks, and found that no one knew much at all. So he decided then and there to become a marine biologist and study them.


His research begins


With the idea of becoming a medical doctor, Gruber was attending Emory University at the time, and was majoring in pre-medical studies. He had been especially intrigued by the study of comparative anatomy in which he had dissected a shark, a giant salamander, and a cat. That summer he was taking courses at the University of Miami, and had asked if he could assist the comparative anatomy laboratory dissecting the animals.

Now, inspired by his riveting meeting with the hammerhead shark, he transferred to the University of Miami, earned his under-graduate degree in zoology and chemistry, and applied to graduate school to study sharks.

Gruber in 1963 studying sharks' eyes
In 1960, the University of Miami’s Marine School had hired Dr. Warren Wisby as professor and researcher in marine animal behaviour, with an emphasis on sharks. As a student of the famous professor Arthur Davis Hasler, Wisby was best known for having discovered the actual mechanism of homing in salmon. By marking hatchling salmon, and going back to their streams when they returned to spawn, Wisby had found that they came back to the exact stream in which they had hatched.

So Gruber’s timing was perfect. He was given a research assistantship, and didn’t have to pay for tuition. In fact he was paid the huge sum of 103 dollars a month as a graduate student there!

Wisby told him that the Navy had given them a grant to study shark senses. When aircraft went down at sea, it happened at times that sharks attacked the flyers in the water. In those days flyers wore two types of suits—high visibility suits called International Orange, and the standard khaki flying suits. According to a Navy report, the flyers wearing International Orange suits were attacked to a man, while the ones wearing khaki suits were left alone.

As a result, the Navy had started calling those orange suits yum yum yellow.

Wisby directed Gruber to look at the literature and report back on the possibility that sharks have colour vision. So he examined all the old reports. They were mostly in German, and they concluded that sharks could not see colours because they lacked the cone-shaped photoreceptors in the eye’s retina that permit colour vision in humans and other animals.

Gruber and Wisby collecting shark eyes to study at a fishing tournament
The Duplexity Theory of vision was introduced in the 1860s by a German scientist named Max Schultze, and states that rods and cones in the retinas of an animal that possesses both, have two functions. Rods are used in night vision when there is little light, while the cones take over during the day, providing the ability to see colours, fine details, and to discern rapidly flashing lights.

Some animals, such as squirrels and iguanas, that are active in daytime, have no rods in their eyes, and nocturnal animals or those adapted to the darkness of caves or the deep sea, have no cones. Therefore, the lack of cones found by early researchers in the retinas of sharks, suggested that they were unable to distinguish colours.

But Wisby questioned the old conclusions. He asked Gruber to go out and actually collect sharks’ eyes, and see what he could find.

Collecting eyes at a shark tournament
So Gruber went to shark tournaments and collected the eyes of every species of large shark caught off the of the eastern seaboard of the US. He put a catheter into their hearts while they were still beating—the animals were brain-dead—and perfused gluteraldehyde, a preservative chemical, through their arteries, to fix their eyes for future study under the electron microscope.
On one occasion, he was notified that a young great white shark was caught and was being held for him. This was the chance of a lifetime for the young graduate student, as white sharks were very rare. He ran out in a boat to where the fisherman was waiting with a barely living 54 lb. specimen, successfully perfused the shark, and collected the eyes.

Can sharks see colour?


Year after year, Gruber worked in a histology lab comparing the retinas of the many species of sharks to see whether they had both rods and cones. And, amazingly, every species he studied had them. Some species seemed to have better retinas than others, but they all had rods and cones. The great white shark had five rods to one cone, which was an especially high ratio.

It seemed that the earlier scientists had studied the cold-water, bottom-loving sharks of the northern seas off Europe, and those species had very few cone cells because they were adapted to dark conditions. Those inaccurate early findings had resulted in many false ideas about sharks taking root. The idea that they had an excellent sense of smell had spread because they came quickly to a scent, and so the concept of a shark as a swimming nose, with poor eyesight, was born a century ago.

The forebrain of a shark, called the telencephalon, is considered one of the most important parts of the brain, like our cerebral hemispheres. And in the shark, the telencephalon was thought to be the centre that analysed scents, because that was how it looked to the early researchers. They did not know how the forebrain worked, and they had never looked at how sharks really behaved, or tried to do neural examinations, yet their primitive ideas about sharks had persisted.

diagram of the brain of a shark, showing the telencephalon
Wisby was pleased with Gruber’s discovery, but pointed out that just because the sharks had cone cells, didn’t mean that they could see colours. “What do the rods and cones mean for sharks?” Wisby asked, and directed Gruber to experiment to learn whether sharks see colours, and investigate their other visual capabilities.

As the eyes of a human or animal adapt to darkness, rods take over the function of vision, providing high sensitivity to light, but no colour. The switching over between the cones and rods is something that can be measured, and it was this line of research that Gruber began to pursue in 1962 for his master, and later his doctorate degrees.

He used the lemon shark as a model, and chose three methods to test the Duplexity Theory of vision in sharks.

Image of the rods and cones in a shark's retina
To assess the rod and cone activity in the retina, he put contact lens electrodes on anaesthetized lemon sharks, and recorded the electrical responses of the retina when illuminated. He used electrophysiology to record electroretinograms, which are similar to the electrocardiogram of doctors, in order to examine the electrical activity of the associated neurons.

His second method involved a behavioural study, following the Pavlovian method of testing called classical or respondent conditioning, and the third was the Skinnerian method, which is called operant conditioning.

Gruber’s results were unambiguous. The three methods gave the same results—there was no doubt that sharks could see colour. The rods functioned as expected in the dark, and the cones were most active in the light-adapted state. He found that as sharks adjusted to darkness, the sensitivity of their eyes became greater and greater, and reached the maximum dark-adaptation after about an hour, achieving a million-fold increase in sensitivity!

They adapted better than humans because unlike us, they possess the tapetum lucidum. This is the mirror-like membrane at the back of the eye which produces eye-shine in some animals. Light entering the eye passes through the retina, and is reflected, as if by a mirror, back from this membrane, potentially doubling the eye’s sensitivity.

eye-shine

The learning rate of a shark


Another interesting finding that emerged from Gruber’s research during his doctoral studies was the speed at which sharks learn.

He was working on Pavlovian training conditioning, doing an experiment in which a shark would see a flash of light, and then receive a mild electric shock. After a certain number of trials, when the shark saw the light, it would have learned to anticipate the shock, and have a reaction. This is called a conditioned response.

The reaction that Gruber planned to use for the experiment was the pause in the shark’s heart-rate resulting from the fear of the coming shock. Fear causes the heart to skip a beat, then accelerate, so at the moment that the shark realized that it was about to receive another shock, its heart paused, and this reaction could be measured. The number of trials it took for the animal to learn the association between the light and the shock, gave a measure of its ability to learn.

While Gruber was flashing the light, and giving the shock, he was looking at the readout on the oscilloscope, rather than at the shark, which was trussed up underwater, with an electrode in its cardiac chamber, looking out into the room through a big Plexiglas bubble.

Then one day, he happened to look at the shark at the moment in which it anticipated the shock, and saw that it winked—the nictitating membrane of the shark’s eye closed. This provided another conditioned response to the light, which meant that there was no need for the heart monitoring—all Gruber had to do was observe. Due to the need for the heart monitoring, the sharks had been unable to survive long enough for him to get them trained, so his discovery was crucial to the success of this important experiment.
The nictitating membrane can be seen here as the lemon shark in the experiment winks.

Now Gruber used a World War II infra-red sniper scope to observe the shark in total darkness, and found that after about ten trials, or repetitions, the shark would wink in expectation of the shock. It was a conditioned response that he got from a shark in only about three minutes!

One session consisted of 10 sets of 10 trials, and after about 80 trials, the shark was responding 100 percent of the time. The next day it took only 3 or 4 trials to get the shark to respond, and it responded 100% of the time after 40 trials. On the third day, it had a 100% response from the start. So it took only about 10 trials for the first response, 80 trials to get the 100% response, and only three days to the state in which the shark was conditioned long term.

By chance, psychologists had been studying Pavlovian conditioning in cats and rabbits using the same paradigm. They used the flash of light as the initial stimulus, and followed it with a puff of air onto the cornea, instead of an electric shock. As in Gruber's experiment, the conditioned response was the movement of the nictitating membrane, so the experiment was a terrestrial version of precisely what Gruber had been doing with sharks.

What was surprising was that the sharks had learned the relationship between the light and the shock ten times faster than the cats and rabbits! These had taken about 800 trials to achieve 100% conditioning, while the sharks had taken only 80 trials!

Gruber working on the experiment in 1966
Further, the sharks remembered what they had learned for over a year, which was far longer than anyone had expected.

Gruber discovered many more interesting things in the course of his research. He found that sharks have different “IQs” and different personalities, and that some are left-handed and some are right-handed. He also found that they have an occlusable tapetum, a further refinement of their vision, as well as a mobile pupil in a variety of shapes, which only sharks and rays, and no other fish, have.

Published


Arthur A. Myrberg, the youngest full professor at the University, took Wisby’s place in 1964, and mentored Gruber during the last years of his master and doctorate degrees. While Gruber and his student, Joel Cohen, were studying shark vision, Myrberg and his students worked on their hearing, and others (not at the University of Miami), were working on olfaction, taste, and electoreception.
In 1976, the Navy asked for a summary of all of the work it had funded about the sensory systems of sharks, and they put their findings together in a major book, which was published in the government printing offices. Gruber’s discoveries about shark vision filled a large chapter.

Ethology


With his findings published, Gruber no longer wanted to work in a dark and damp laboratory, and longed to understand the role sharks play in the marine environment. He dreamed of studying their behaviour in a similar, systematic way, in the wild, and decided that he would find a way to do it, using the lemon shark he had come to know so well, and wanted to understand more deeply.

By then he had become an assistant professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, teaching advanced courses in animal behaviour, tropical marine biology, and the physiology and behaviour of marine organisms.

He had done a post-doctoral study in 1971-72, at the Max-Planck Institute in Germany, under Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, the famous Austrian ethologist, just as Myrberg had done a decade before. Both men were interested in pursuing their interest in ethology, and as a side project, they had put together an observational study on a captive colony of bonnethead sharks, which was published in the journal Copeia in 1974. It remains the only ethogram, which is an inventory of the repertoire of behaviour patterns displayed by a species, that was ever published for sharks.

Then in 1976, they gathered together all of their information on shark behaviour for a symposium in New Orleans, and it was published in the journal American Zoologist.

Gruber and Myrberg developed a close personal friendship that was to last all their lives. They travelled together as they pursued their research in Europe and the Middle East. They dove with Cousteau in Monaco, travelled through Europe visiting friends and colleagues, and studied sharks in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean. And when Gruber got engaged, it was at Myrberg’s home.

Gruber left Navy research in 1976, and in 1977 he proposed a study to the National Science Foundation, on the role lemon sharks in the tropical marine environment. His goal was to do an autecological study designed to examine many aspect of this species’ biology, with an emphasis on behavior and ecology. It was funded in 1978 and is still continuing today in 2014.

At last he was fulfilling his dream, of discovering what a shark is, and what it does in its life in the wild.

A watercolour portrait of a tiger shark (by the writer)

Bio-energetics


Gruber chose bio-energetics as way of understanding the biology of the lemon shark. Bio-energetics gives the researcher a mathematical method to describe the workings of a living system. Like all things in nature, a shark conforms to the laws of thermodynamics, that decree that in a system, the energy that comes out, no matter how it is channeled or converted, has to equal the energy that has gone in.

In other words, the energy that goes into a shark as food, will come out through growth, metabolism, waste, other biological products. The processes of metabolism—the nerves, digestion, muscles, respiration, and other biological processes—will likely burn half of the calories, and such materials as mucus, urine, and faeces can be burned up in a calorimeter to find how many calories were lost that way. The calories consumed must be partitioned within the body into only four unknowns, and the process can be analysed.

As an example, the common practice of dieting and exercising to reduce one’s weight, utilizes the principle of bioenergetics to achieve a goal. By decreasing the energy going into the body in the form of food, we can force it to use stored fat to make up the deficit, and thus lose weight.

Gruber described it this way, “It is possible to make an equation that balances in four unknowns. It is a simple thing to do mathematically and it reveals a great deal about the animal. It shows how they make their living, what they require for food, their metabolic needs, what they need to digest food, how much of what they eat is assimilated, how much is lost in waste products, how quickly they grow, and how much food it takes them to grow.

“That’s what you can tell about a shark’s life and what it takes to grow a shark in the environment and that’s what we did. It took us over ten years.”

Through a combination of laboratory research and studies in the field, Gruber and his colleagues and students focused so much research on the lemon shark that they discovered much about its life history characteristics, its population dynamics, its growth, reproduction, and genetics. He was determined to make sure that their experiments were realistic by always comparing laboratory results to what could be learned from sharks in the marine environment.

Fieldwork


Initially Gruber studied lemon sharks in Coupon Bight in the Florida Keys. Using nets, he and his colleagues would reliably catch 100 to 120 juvenile lemon sharks there, each summer season, which they would work up and release. But in the early eighties, their numbers began to fall, and in three years he could not catch one shark there. All of the work he had done during all of those years was wasted.

He found out that it was due to overfishing. Fishermen had been catching the little baby sharks in the nursery for crab traps and had fished them all out. The mothers that were supposed to be coming back to the place they were born to give birth had been fished too, so the entire local population of sharks had disappeared.

Gruber knew that the sharks were in trouble again, because this had already happened to him in Florida. So he began doing his research at a small island in the Bahamas at the place where he would later establish the Bimini Biological Field Station. Four times a year, he went there for his field research using National Science Foundation research vessels which were at his disposal from the University of Miami.

Later, when he had the Bimini field station set up, they could do permanent work there without the need to go back and forth to Florida, which allowed them to expand their research.

The research

The Bimini Shark Lab that Gruber founded in the Bahamas

The main thrust of Gruber’s research was trophic ecology or autecology, the ecology of one species.

Bimini’s lagoon was like a marine lake, where the juvenile lemon sharks were obliged to remain, and each shark could be looked at year after year for six or seven years before it left the area. The location was ideal. There were two to three hundred sharks divided between three to four nursery areas, and he tagged nearly all of them, and focused hard on learning all about their lives as he tried to unravel the ecology of the lemon shark. How many sharks were there? How many lived? How many died? How many grew up to maturity? How fast did they grow? What would it take to grow a lemon shark up from a pup to an adult of 80 kg?

Each spring, when the lemon shark pups were born, Gruber and the students did a comprehensive tagging study. They built a large pen, which could hold up to 150 sharks. Then they caught the sharks in nets, tagged them with an electronic micro-tag, took a genetic sample, weighed them, measured them, sexed them, and put them in the giant pen. Every year they would catch, tag, and work up between 180 and 230 sharks. The sharks were released, and then the next year the same sharks that survived, could be caught and measured again. The year 2014 was their 20th year.

The shark pens are visible in the foreground
After more than a decade of research, they balanced the bio-energetic equation for a young, fast-growing, 2 kg lemon shark at 25 degrees centigrade, and discovered that the little shark was an energy conserver, and ate only about seven times its body weight in a year. By comparison, many fish, such as tuna, blow a lot of energy and have to eat a lot of food. And humans, in comparison with lemon sharks, eat an enormous amount.

With the sharks living free in a place where they could be watched from year to year, many experiments were possible. For example, they were able to study their movements, their relationship to temperatures, their food, their place in the ecological system, and their social networks. The nursery was a region of mangroves, and certain little snails called Batillaria were low on the food chain and were the keystone species. The next level was crabs, then fish, then sharks—sharks were on the fifth level.

The countless studies took years and years, doctoral dissertations, and masters theses, and thousands of students all coming to Bimini to study sharks. Gruber taught a University of Miami course there for 22 years, sometimes twice a year; now he teaches five university courses at the station. He had graduate students, built big holding pens at his research facility, and kept dozens of lemon sharks.

And as time passed and he learned of its abilities and capacities, the lemon shark became an animal of complete fascination. To Gruber, the lemon shark had gone from a predatory fish with fins and teeth to being more like a family member.

He said,

“As I went through my early career and I got married and we had children, then we got a house and we got cars, I realized that the lemon shark had provided a living for me in the human world, whereby I could become a functional and useful citizen and have a family. It was all because of the lemon shark. That’s why I get so nervous when I think that they are having problems underwater, not only with being overfished, but also with us handling them.

So I have not been able to remain objective in my feelings for them, although I have tried to remain objective in my research of them.”

Doc Gruber loves lemon sharks

(c) Ila France Porcher

Illustrations courtesy of Dr. Gruber, except where indicated.

This first of three parts, was originally published in Shark Tales in X-ray Dive Magazine, issue 64. See Part two next!