The ‘Shark Lady,’ aka Eugenie Clark began researching sharks in the 1950’s. She focused much of her work on dispelling public fears and myths about sharks. Her contributions to the world of marine biology are vast, and continued throughout her life, until she passed away in February 2015 at age 92. Clark credited her love of marine life to her Japanese American heritage and growing up in her stepfather’s Japanese restaurant, along with frequent trips to the New York Aquarium in her hometown of NYC.
Few women, let alone Japanese American women, were working in the field of marine biology shortly after WWII. She was a pioneer in the field, and has paved the way for more women to follow in her footsteps and continue the work she started.
So what have we learned about sharks from this astounding woman? Here are a few of her discoveries and accomplishments:
- She discovered the first effective shark repellent in secretions from a flatfish (that she also discovered!) called Moses sole that is native to the Red Sea.
- She debunked the previously accepted idea that sharks had to keep moving to breathe. Clark discovered this while diving into undersea caverns off Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula to find “sleeping sharks” that were suspended in the water but clearly still breathing.
- In 1955, she founded the Cape Haze Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. It is now called Mote Marine Laboratory, and one Clark’s major discoveries while working in the lab was with the lemon shark. She found that after training these sharks to push a target and ring a bell for food, they could remember what to do months after removing these objects from their presence. The lemon sharks could even distinguish correct and incorrect targets.
- In 1968, Clark joined Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s on the maiden voyage of the Calypso, to film ocean environments and conduct scientific experiments. She and the other researchers gained new insight into how sharks respond to people and how a shark’s smell, sound, and sight factor into triggering attacks. They found that sharks have keen eyesight and sense of smell, and they are able to perceive and react to vibrations in the water. Their work also showed the importance of tagging in tracking migratory patterns.
Eugenie Clark has blazed the trail for other female marine biologists, ecologists, and conservationists interested in sharks to pursue their goals and expand our knowledge on these magnificent creatures.
Women of the Gill’s Club
The Gills Club, a website dedicated to engaging girls and young women in projects that change the way sharks are viewed by the general public, and educating them on the importance of STEM in the classroom, sharks, and the environment. There are more than 40 leading women shark researchers on this site! Each month on their Facebook page, two scientists are featured. They talk about their research and personal experiences, and spread the shark knowledge! Here are a few of the women who are making an impact through their amazing work with sharks, and by helping girls harness their passion for sharks.
Dr. Shannon Corrigan
Much of Corrigan’s work is done in a lab, conducting studies and using DNA to better understand evolution and conservation of sharks. Her research as a PhD student at Macquarie University focused on wobbegong sharks. Using their mitochondrial and nuclear DNA data, Corrigan developed a better understanding of the wobbegong’s evolution, genetic structure, their relationships with one another, their taxonomy, and the biogeography and speciation of this vulnerable being.
Corrigan has also studied shortfin mako sharks. She used information from satellite tracking and genetic data to better understand the movement ecology and dispersal of these sharks. She hopes this research will provide support for future conservation efforts.
Michelle Jewell, an ecologist specializing in predator/prey behaviors, writes for Southern Fried Science, an online forum discussing marine science and conservation. Her piece “Remember when sexism in science died? Me neither.” focuses on the sexism still present in science programs and fields. She has authored many articles, some of which you can find on the Gill’s Club blog.
Jewell believes that predator-prey interactions are so interesting because of the dichotomy of being these intense, bloody scenes, while also being subtle, with indirect interactions that impact our entire ecosystem. She takes a holistic approach to viewing these interactions and is passionate about conducting more research in this field. She is a self-described ‘shark scientist’, who is making strides for women in marine science, and expanding our knowledge about sharks and their interactions.
Lindsay Graff, a shark biologist, is currently focusing on the seasonal great white shark population with Dr. Greg Skomal and The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. She spent the last four years leading a Fiji Shark Studies program which partners with Beqa Adventure Divers to provide once-in-a-lifetime shark experiences for its students. For three weeks, students dive every morning in the Shark Reef Marine Reserve, and then spend the afternoon learning about everything from internal and external biology of sharks, to current threats to shark populations, to the plethora of research being done on sharks around the world. The students travel underwater to see for themselves the pattern found on bull sharks, or how the tail shape allows for blacktip reef sharks to speedily grab their prey. It is an incredible experience that allows for so much up close and personal learning!
Women are following in the footsteps of people like Clark, and it is amazing and beneficial to learn about their discoveries and adventures. It is an exciting time for young girls to enrich their knowledge about marine life and conservation, and maybe even consider becoming the next ‘Shark Lady’!