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Monterey Bay Aquarium Releases Treasure Trove of White Shark Data

In a move that’s somewhat a rarity among the research world, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has made public nearly 20 years of its research into white sharks in what could also be a boon for the study of climate change. 

The data comes from seventy satellite tracking tags attached to sharks over the last two decades between Southern California and the Bay Area, resulting in a treasure trove of information. The aquarium decided to make the data public, with the hopes it could be used by other researchers and the general public. 

“We realized we could reflect on our 20-year database with the data collected by these tags,” said John O’Sullivan, director of collections for the aquarium, “by selecting 14 tags which turned out to be over 20 million data points with depth and temperature.” 

The research was already underway when it took an unexpected twist in 2014 as juvenile white sharks, believed to be following unusually warm ocean waters, began turning up in the Monterey Bay for the first time ever. The sharks set up shop off the shores of the Santa Cruz County town of Aptos where they have remained ever since. 

Their arrival coincided with the discovery of a massive patch of warm water in the Pacific Ocean which scientists nicknamed the “warm blob.” 

“While very exciting for us it became kind of problematic for the sea otters,” O’Sullivan said, noting that shark bites are now the first and second highest causes of death for sea otters in the bay – a concern for the aquarium’s program which rehabs and release sea otters within the bay.  

The data collected from the tags included locations, water temperatures and the types of instruments used in the tagging. The aquarium carefully curated the data before its release on the internet, making it easy for others to navigate. 

“Now when future students or scientists want to go through and use this valuable resource,” said white shark researcher Salvador Jorgensen, “they’ll know where to go.”  

Because the project also recorded environmental conditions in addition to location, it was able to confirm water temperatures in the area have indeed been heating up in recent years – a potential result of changing climate

“Already we are looking at the habitat preferences and the temperature preferences of these juvenile sharks 20 years ago,” Jorgensen said, “and we’re comparing where those conditions occur today and it’s in different places because the sea is warming.” 

O’Sullivan said the tags and the data recorded can be used beyond the study of sharks — and aid researchers studying the impacts of changing climate. 

“The tag doesn’t know it’s specific to white sharks,” O’Sullivan said. “It’s collecting data — we had programmed it at every 30 seconds —  to be taking snapshots of temperature and depth and positioning.” 

The aquarium’s release of the trove of data, though more common in recent years among the research community, is still somewhat unusual. Researchers are often apt to guard their work, having gone through the effort of applying for grants, and investing large amounts of money and time. 

“It can encourage other researchers to also release their data,” O’Sullivan said, “which allows a broader audience of researchers to look at that.” 

Source: NBC Bay Area

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