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Dr. Shiffman and co-worker

Five questions with Dr. David Shiffman and why sharks are awesome

postdoc sharks David Shiffman questions
By Wiley Larsen on October 6, 2020

You're kinda famous in shark circles. Tell us a little about that. 

My wife describes me as “really famous in a tiny part of the world that most people don't care about or know exists.” I'm happy with that level of fame, though I have been recognized in a Costco and once in an airport security line. In addition to being a researcher, I do a lot of public science engagement stuff. I do a lot of it in person, and I also do a lot online. I'm one of the most followed scientists in the world on social media, where I talk about marine biology and ocean conservation in general, and sharks specifically. I have attracted a wide following doing that.  Also, during the pandemic, I've made myself available to public schools around the country, where teachers are suddenly stressed and parents are suddenly homeschooling. I've been able to talk to students in all 50 states, reaching thousands of students.  I also do a lot of media outreach, including things I write myself. I've written for The Washington Post. I read for Scientific American. I have a monthly column in SCUBA Diving Magazine, and I'm working on a book now. And I also have done hundreds of interviews over the past few years, keeping me busy.

Dr. Shiffman and co-worker wrangle a shark by sitting on top of it.Why sharks? 

I think most kids go through a shark thing or a dinosaur thing at some point during their childhood. Even though I grew up pretty far from the ocean, in Pittsburgh, I had a love of sharks. I've been obsessed with sharks as long as my family can remember. There are pictures of me as a toddler with shark toys and shark T-shirts and things like that. I've just always known this is what I want to do. My parents, God bless them, have always been very supportive, even though I think they thought I would grow out of it and go to law school or something. I've just always been fascinated by sharks. In high school and college, I learned that sharks are an ecologically important group of animals and that they are under serious conservational threat. They need science and expertise to help protect them. So, it seemed like a worthy professional avenue.

What's it like being an ASU postdoc in Washington, DC? 

I have an interesting setup here because ASU actually does have a campus in Washington DC, and I have office space that I can use there. I'm theoretically attached to the New College on West Campus. That’s where my postdoc supervisor, Lara Ferry, is based. I've only been there once though. We had planned that I would come out there more regularly, but then the pandemic hit. I talk to Lara on the phone all the time, but most of the time I’m just working from home. Washington, DC is the perfect place for my research interests. I’m exploring questions like, “How does conservation science help change endangered species management plans?” “How do fisheries, science and sustainability science help influence natural resource management plans?” “What do scientists need to know or need to do differently to make their expertise more practically useful?” I'm working now more generally with marine species. I’m also trying to understand how science influences policy. Washington, DC is the place to be. There is just so much happening in the environmental policy space here. Before the pandemic, most nights I had a choice of attending interesting lectures, behind the scenes museum tours or networking happy hours with journalists, NGOs, and natural resource management agency staff. This is the place to be for the sort of work that I do.

What is one thing about sharks that you wish the general public understood? 

Basically, sharks are awesome. They're a really, really cool and fascinating group of animals that often serve as a hook for getting children interested in science and the ocean. Sharks are not a threat to you or your family, even though most people hear about sharks in the context of them biting people. This is a really, really rare event. In a typical year, hundreds of millions of humans go into the ocean. Fifty to 70 - not 50 to 70 thousand - in the whole world are bitten, and maybe 10 of those require more medical care than a band-aid. In a typical year, more humans are killed falling off cliffs while taking a selfie than are killed by sharks. More people are bitten by other humans on the New York City subway then are bitten by sharks. More people are killed by vending machines than are killed by sharks. It's just an overblown fear. Sharks are not a threat to you and your family. They are really, really important predators that help keep the food chain in balance. And when we're talking about the ocean and coastal ecosystem, we're talking about a food chain that supports hundreds of millions of jobs and billions of humans’ food supply. It's a food chain that we very much want to be in balance. Unfortunately, many species of sharks are in trouble.  Many sharks are listed on the endangered species list, and we have other sharks that probably should be. The IUCN Red List -- that’s an international group of scientific experts that has an affiliation with ASU — they list one quarter of all known species of sharks as threatened. Sharks are in some of the worst conservation shape of any group of animals. And the final thing is, what we do matters. They need our help and it's possible to help. I focus on that in my upcoming book as well as on my social media pages. Sharks are important, sharks are not a threat to you, sharks are in trouble and it's not too late to help.

Jimmy Buffett's song "FINS" is my ringtone. Do you see any parallels with the mating rituals of the single male homo sapien as compared to those of the male adolescent selachimorpha as depicted in the lyrics? 

Yes, that’s one of my karaoke standbys. 

I have a post about this on our blog, Southern Fried Science, called 50 Shades of Grey Reef Shark. Shark mating is extraordinarily violent. Sharks have to keep moving constantly in order to breathe, and they live in a three-dimensional environment, so in order to be attached to the female long enough for mating to occur, there is biting. Unlike fish, who spawn and release clouds of sperm and eggs into the water, sharks don't. When you see sharks mating, you'd recognize what you're looking at. They have internal fertilization, external genitalia, and males have two reproductive organs and they use whichever one is closer to the female. There's a really interesting thing in shark reproductive biology called multiple paternity. Basically, that means a female will mate with multiple males, not necessarily at the exact same time but maybe over the course of a few days or weeks, and she will become pregnant by several of them at the same time and will give birth to a litter of half siblings that have the same mother but different fathers.  Humans don't do that. There's also not a lot of wooing or romance involved, as I said, it's… it's very to the point.

Follow Dr. Shiffman on TwitterFacebook, and InstagramDr. Shiffman will be leading a workshop on social media for scientists, “Online public engagement” on November 12.