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Ph.D. student conducts critical research work establishing new species from home

Ph.D. student conducts critical research work establishing new species from home

September 21, 2020 at 11:04am

Cindy Gonzalez has a freezer full of shark samples, teeth lined up on her table and a corner of her living room has become a science lab.

A Ph.D. student in FIU’s Predator Ecology & Conservation lab, Gonzalez was in the process of describing a new bonnethead shark species — a critical next step in the research establishing a new species — when students were abruptly sent home to continue their studies remotely amid the COVID-10 pandemic. Her once cozy apartment has been converted to a science lab where she spends her days analyzing and logging key information about this unknown species.

In 2017, Associate Professor Demian Chapman led a team of scientists studying bonnetheads off the coast of Belize when they discovered something fishy. Initially believed to be just a single abundant species of bonnetheads that frequent the waters in the region, the team conducted DNA testing and was surprised to find two entirely separate species of bonnethead sharks.

Gonzalez initially conducted a genetic analysis that revealed the sharks were ranging from Brazil to Belize, which is a cause for concern for the scientists. Unregulated fishing has led to reports of severely compromised populations of bonnetheads in Brazil and other parts of Latin America.

“The very first step to protecting a species is recognizing that it exists and understanding where it is,” Chapman said. “Without that essential information there can be no species-specific conservation plan or protective measures.”

Gonzalez, who specializes in genetic population structure of bonnethead sharks, says the presence of two different species with similar distributional ranges means conservation efforts may need to be reassessed because each population is unique.

“To conserve them, we have to protect them locally,” she said.

By providing the information needed for this previously unknown species to be recognized as a distinct species, the aim is to give a call to fisheries departments and environmental ministries for the proper management and conservation of bonnethead sharks through its distribution range.

A smaller cousin of the hammerhead family, bonnetheads are found in the United States, Bahamas, Caribbean and Latin America. Abundant in these waters, bonnetheads are currently classified as a least-concern species according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. However, there is only one bonnethead shark described that ranges from the United States to Brazil, partially because of responsible management practices within U.S. waters.

Gonzalez hopes her work will help developing countries realize the importance and vulnerability of these species, and ultimately maintain better conservation efforts to protect them. Identifying one unique species is not enough. Now that the scientists know there are at least two unique species, it begs the question, are there more?