Monday, January 20, 2014

Surveying the sea

In 1902, the first and only known specimen of what was later identified as the smoothtooth blacktip shark (Carcharhinus leiodon) was caught in Yemen. In 2008, more than a century later, the second specimen was discovered 1,850 miles (3,000 km) away in Kuwait. Where was this elusive fish found? At the fish market (IMAGE ABOVE), surveys of which biologists have found to be an effective research tool that offers advantages over traditional scientific field sampling. As scientist Julia Spaet of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia explains, “The resources dedicated by a fleet of fishermen will always outmatch any scientific efforts to assess abundances. In other words, the fishing industry is more efficient at finding sharks where there are not [many] left.” But now a new sampling technique is on the horizon. A team of researchers were able to identify species in California's Monterey Bay Aquarium (including sardine, tuna, dolphinfish, mackerel, and even the ground menhaden that they were fed) and calculate their relative abundance by analyzing the DNA in 2 pint-size glasses of the water in their tank. Says environmental scientist Ryan Kelly of the University of Washington who led the study, "It might be unpleasant to think about when going for a swim in the ocean, but the water is a soup of cells shed by what lives there....Clearly this is an effective tool in the wild when you know what you're looking for."

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