Twitter is how I met Jonathan Davis! When I first started out on Twitter, I "followed" a bunch of people, including Jonathan, and love getting updates on his field work (while I sit on my sofa eating Chips Ahoy! cookies). He's a marine biologist working for Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, researching bull shark ecology by tagging, tracking, analyzing their blood. The chats we've had are great, and I loved live-tweeting #SharkWeek with him this past year! Jonathan was kind enough to take time away from his (very!) busy schedule and answer a few questions for us.
Jonathan Davis: My dream research project has been on Bull Sharks ever since I was a little kid. I grew up in coastal Texas and frequented the beach which planted the seed for becoming a marine biologist. Sharks have fascinated me for as long as I can remember and I always thought it would be awesome to swim beside one as it makes its way along the coast and near the beaches.
SF: See, a large majority of the public would disagree with that [laughs].
JD: When I learned that Bull Sharks can travel even closer to us by swimming up rivers and into coastal lakes and estuaries I was amazed and the fire was lit for the dream project!
SF: I feel like I already know the answer to this, but, if you could study one shark, which would it be, why, and what would you focus on?
JD: If I could study one shark, it would be… Yep, you guessed it… the Bull Shark. The sheer beauty, power, and overall adaptability of these sharks to our coastal ecosystem is fascinating.
SF: They really are a beautiful representation of what a "shark" is.
JD: The fact that bull sharks have broken the mold of being marine creatures and swim right up the rivers, into estuaries, lakes, bayous, etc is enough in itself to blow my mind. With that being said, these sharks also provide an opportunity to study how humans and sharks share the same habitat. Millions of people live along the coast and the ways in which these sharks move, reproduce, grow, and thrive in these coastal ecosystems with all the challenges they face being so close to civilization is a prime area of focus.
SF: That is an excellent point. Have you ever had a nerve-wracking experience in the field while working with these animals? What did you learn from it?
JD: The worst experience I’ve ever had in the field doing my research was not exactly a terrible experience as much as a nerve-wracking, dangerous, ‘make you rethink your life choices’ type of experience. I had set a 100 meter gillnet out along the north bank of Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana to collect and tag some bull sharks. I had a kayak I was paddling along to the deep end to check the net when I saw
SF: Oh my gosh!
JD: At this point I was 30 feet from the bank and the gator was about 8 feet away. I froze, considered my options, and decided to let go of the net. Thankfully, the alligator twisted itself loose but I was left with 10 meters of torn mesh, no shark, and a serious shakiness to my will for fieldwork that day.
SF: I can definitely see how that would make you rethink your field protocol. Alligators are definitely something I don't mess with, knowing their power all too well by living in Florida and having too-close-for-comfort encounters with a few myself.
JD: In the end, when bull sharks are not the only apex predator in the research area and the other has legs, it’s best to use a boat. I tried to save some fuel costs and research funds by using the kayak but in the end safety comes first
SF: So glad you are okay and that experience didn't end up any worse! Speaking of the field, what is one piece of equipment you can’t live without out on the field?
JD: In the field, my syringes are the most important piece of equipment. I can learn so much from the blood I draw from the sharks and a whole bag full of syringes are integral to my research.
SF: How about in the lab?
JD: In the lab, the most important piece of equipment is my centrifuge. It is old, but it does its job. To properly analyze the blood I have to spin it down and separate out the plasma and the red blood cells which is only possible with a centrifuge.
JD: The work by many people in the shark world to advocate for their protection is repeatedly the “WIN” for sharks every year. Organizations like Shark Advocates International have made incomparable efforts and strides in the realm of shark and ray conservation worldwide. This year they played a role in strengthening the Shark Finning Ban at NAFO which is continually pointing us in the right direction for worldwide support. In addition to national policy and overall protection, the media plays a huge role in the annual ‘win’ or ‘lose’ for sharks. A couple of years back my research was featured on Shark Week. [SF: For those who don't know, this was the episode called "Voodoo Shark"] It is a week during the year when sharks are highlighted in the international spotlight. It airs all around the world and provides a platform for real shark science to be presented. However, over the last few years they have promoted shark attacks, made people believe extinct sharks were still around, and strayed away from real shark science by making up stories of mythical nonsense. I did countless interviews and wrote many articles about how the producers twisted my actual shark research around by combining and intermingling it with a show about a mythical shark in the bayous of my research areas. With the efforts of myself and many other shark researchers nationwide that had been jaded or just held strong disdain for Shark Week’s disappointing actions,
SF: I was outraged when I heard your story, amongst others. It baffles me the lengths that some networks would go!
JD: Discovery actually listened at least a little and this year’s Shark Week was a major improvement. There were still shows about attacks, a massive shark that sounded shady, and some inconsistencies in information. However, there were NO shows about Megalodon, no new mythical creatures, and many shows focused on some awesome groundbreaking shark science never seen before. So, in summary, this year was a stride in the right direction for sharks.
SF: We can't help but agree with you, Jonathan. Thanks again for taking time out to talk to us! And good luck with your continuing research. We're excited to keep tabs on you!
Follow Jonathan on Twitter @TexasSharks_JD!