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Scary maybe not, but still pretty cool


Photo credit:  Gregory Skomal, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries

During Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the white shark tends to get all the glory.  That is why we decided to focus on an equally fascinating shark with much smaller teeth.  While the basking shark may not invoke the same level of tantalizing fear in the minds of people, a hundred years ago some sailors found it terrifying. 

These giant fish may swim nose to tail when migrating in groups.  This creates the illusion of one giant creature.  Ancient mariners used to think they were actually sea monsters.

The basking shark is the second-largest living fish, after the whale shark, and the largest fish that regularly occurs in the Northeast.  It is one of three plankton-eating sharks besides the whale shark and megamouth shark.  A cosmopolitan migratory species, the basking shark is found in all the world's temperate oceans.

It can grow to reach more than 35 feet long and weigh 3 tons.  These gentle giants feed with their mouths open, taking in both water and zooplankton as they move through the water column.

Tobey Curtis, shark expert, shares a little of what he knows about these remarkable creatures.  Tobey is a fishery policy analyst for NOAA Fisheries.  His daily work at NOAA Fisheries involves developing and implementing management measures for spiny dogfish and skates.  Spiny dogfish are an abundant, small shark species that supports a commercial fishery off the North Atlantic coast.  Skates are a close relative of sharks.  They are caught primarily for their wings, the majority of which is shipped to European markets.  Tobey is also working on his Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth where he studies basking sharks.

Q.           Tobey, why did you decide to do your research on the basking shark?

A.            Despite being the largest fish in New England waters, we know surprisingly little about their biology and ecology in this region.

Q.           Why is it important that we learn more about its movements?

A.            If we better understand basking shark movements and habitat needs, we can more successfully manage our own activities that may impact its population.  Understanding the habitat preferences of these animals will also help us predict how they may adapt to climate change. 

Q.           What technology did you use to track the shark’s movements?

A.            We used a couple of different types of satellite tags to track the species movements and we matched this with oceanographic information so we could better understand the environmental conditions necessary for this species’ survival (e.g., conducive to finding food, etc.).

Q.           What did you learn?

A.           Off the coast of Massachusetts during summer months, the tagged basking sharks appeared to select areas with shallow bottom depths, high primary production and chlorophyll concentrations, and steep surface gradients.  These conditions likely promote a high abundance of zooplankton prey for the sharks.  Basking sharks remain in northeastern waters until the fall, when they begin a southward migration into deep, offshore waters. 

Read Tobey's article on basking shark satellite tagging.

Check out this cool video on basking shark tagging conducted by NOAA Fisheries scientists in the Pacific.

Basking Shark found on Massachusetts Beach (2013)

#SharkChat on Twitter with NOAA Scientist Tobey Curtis