What's an Elasmobranch? - Sailors for the Sea

What’s an Elasmobranch?

By: Vicky Vásquez, Graduate Student, Pacific Shark Research Center & Deputy Director, Ocean Research Foundation | August 18, 2016

From Lost Sharks to Superstars: Public Engagement Paves a New Path in Marine Science

Every year, as people tune in to Shark Week on the Discovery Channel to catch up on their favorite oceanic superstars, they may not realize that these fish are not all true sharks. Collectively, these breathtaking visuals of manta rays gliding above coral reefs and great white sharks rocketing out of placid waters depict a group of cartilaginous fish called elasmobranchs; these are sharks, rays, and skates (basically a ray without a stinger). One advantage of elasmobranchs becoming superstars is the increase of public awareness. With more people capable of identifying elasmobranchs down to genus or species, scientists have essentially gained a larger pool of citizen scientists who can assist with data collection.

The Pacific Shark Research Center (PSRC) has developed one such project, It’s Hammertime!, for hammerhead sharks in California after multiple water users on social media shared observations and photos of these sharks during the summer of 2014. Two species of large hammerhead sharks are known to occur in the Northeast Pacific Ocean off Southern California, the scalloped and smooth. Of these two species, the smooth hammerhead is the more temperate occurring species and the extent of its occurrence is poorly known. Smooth hammerheads are listed as vulnerable by the IUCN Red List Assessment while the scalloped hammerhead has been designated as endangered.

Typically, the scalloped hammerhead is only observed during warm water years associated with El Niño events, while the smooth hammerhead is the more commonly seen of the two species. Although the hammerhead shark’s iconic cephalofoil (the flattened and laterally extended part of the head) makes it easily identifiable down to genus, species-specific identification is often challenging for the general public. Fortunately, the increased use of digital devices such as smart phones and GoPro cameras has facilitated the public’s ability to document observations and share them with scientists. In doing so, groups like PSRC can not only confirm what species was spotted, but also gain further details from devices such as date, time, and GPS location. 

Whereas the It’s Hammertime! project focuses on the Northeast Pacific Ocean; the Manta Matcher is interested in citizen science data from around the world. The project includes a world map of observations, which provides citizen scientists the opportunity to confirm the presence of mantas in existing as well as new locations. For the occasions when a water user spots any species of elasmobranch, there are also groups like Ocean Sanctuaries that collect a much wider range of observations for re-use by the citizen scientist themselves as well as researchers.

One problem with these elasmobranch superstars is that they can often outshine lesser-known species. For instance, along the U.S. West Coast, basking sharks can be found close to shore dining on plankton at the water’s surface yet this area is more famously known as great white shark territory. As a result, many water users misidentify, plankton eating basking sharks for their more intimidating macropredator cousins. When translating observations into marine science terms, this can lead to a misunderstanding of the spatial and temporal patterns of great white sharks and a complete lack of understanding of basking sharks. Consequently, PSRC has partnered with the National Marine Fisheries Service to investigate the abundance, distribution, and population status of basking sharks in the Northeast Pacific, which also includes a citizen science component.

Despite basking sharks being misidentified from time to time, this species is not exactly a lost shark. Currently, lost sharks are suffering a much more serious case of anonymity; they receive little public or scientific attention. This can be of much more serious concern since new species of lost sharks are being discovered every year and many of the ones known so far face serious conservation threats.

Dr. David Ebert, director of PSRC, coined the term “lost shark” in an attempt to engage the public with these lesser-known species that span the entire chondrichthyan group (all cartilaginous fish). To further highlight the plight of lost sharks, PSRC, in conjunction with a group of experts, contributed to the publication of a study in the journal eLIFE, which revealed that roughly 25% of elasmobranchs are at risk of extinction and 50% are data deficient. As one of the world leading labs in chondrichthyan taxonomy, PSRC has discovered 15% of all new species described in the last ten years.

These scientific endeavors alone are nothing without the engagement and support of the public. Consequently, PSRC uses a myriad of outreach tools — from in-person education to social media activities — that highlight the unique qualities lost sharks possess. Unique qualities include glowing, as in lanternsharks; chainsaw-like faces, as in sawsharks and sawfish; and an all-around “out of this world” appearance, which inspired the Shark Week show “Alien Sharks” (one example there are ghost sharks).

PSRC’s methods led to an innovative outreach strategy in which school-aged children helped name a new species of lanternshark. This group of sharks, which contains 38 species (current to the publishing of this article), is a perfect example of the lost shark dilemma. That’s because despite being one of the most species-rich shark groups in the world, lanternsharks are also one of the least studied.

Similar to other lanternsharks, this species possesses spines on both dorsal fins and photophores (glowing organs) throughout the body. Specimens of this new species are jet-black with none of the classic body markings that other lanternsharks possess, nor do they seem to glow as brightly. Armed with this information, the young participants decided to dub the new species of shark the ninja lanternshark.

Video: “We Named a Shark!” Video credit: Vicky Vásquez and her cousins.

Also important to note about this species is that the scientific name was chosen in honor of the late Peter Benchley, author of Jaws. Though this may seem like an odd fit, the nearly forgotten fate of lost sharks is similar to the lesser-known conservation work that Benchley dedicated himself to. Both of these, sadly, are eclipsed by the book and movie and its star, the great white shark.

Unlike citizen science projects, the public does not need to be out in nature to engage with lost shark projects. From anywhere in the world — whether one is along the coast or land-locked — people can support lost shark projects by increasing public awareness. In the case of the ninja lanternshark, public awareness of this single species transformed into media attention that increased awareness for all PSRC lost shark projects. The ninja lanternshark outreach project, in conjunction with PSRC’s other outreach strategies, has resulted in a crowdfunding campaign receiving over 200% of the requested budget. The money will allow for the study and eventual publication of 15 potentially new species of lost sharks from the western Indian Ocean.

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