Welcome to Spot the Leopard Shark
This is a brand new project that was just launched on Phi Phi Island in August 2013. This is a community project thats is being promoted and used by Shark Guardian.
How the project works
It’s easy to be involved – all you have to do is submit any photos of leopard sharks that you have from Thai waters with information on where and when you took them. We’ll use these photos and information to address questions of how many leopard sharks there are in Thailand, which areas they use, how this changes over time, how long they live, etc. So every time you take a photo, you are also being a marine biologist and collecting data!
How this helps Leopard sharks and conservation
Just taking pictures of the Leopard sharks may seem pretty simple but these questions are important and timely for this species. Leopard sharks are classified as Vulnerable to Extinction on the IUCN Red List. If that doesn’t mean much to you let me put it into context – this is the same classification as for polar bears and the great white shark and I’m sure you’ve heard of the conservation concerns for those animals. There is a lot of effort around the globe to help save polar bears and white sharks but not so for leopard sharks. However, the good news is that we have a powerful tool to use and a lot of data that already exists to start making this effort.
We just need to gather it – how?!
You may not think of it as a scientific tool as such, but digital photography has opened up whole new ways to conduct research. It’s quite new (only really the last 15 years) and increasingly affordable. With so many divers in the water armed with cameras, the capacity for collecting data is fantastic. With high speed internet, these photos can easily be submitted to a central database through email and social media.
The reason photos are so useful is because each individual leopard shark has a unique spotting pattern that we can use to tell them apart. Individual markings are common for sharks and rays and have been used to study manta rays, whale sharks, white shark and black tip reef sharks to name a few. The tricky thing with leopard sharks is that they undergo one of the most dramatic changes in body markings of any shark. The babies have bold dark and light stripes that break up into spots as they turn into an adult (in contrast manta rays and whale sharks have the same marking throughout life). We don’t really know when the patterns stop changing. But we do know that they are stable in the adults as I have found out from studying leopard sharks in southern Queensland (QLD) Australia.
Leopard Sharks in Australia
In southern QLD leopard sharks aggregate in large numbers over the summer months every year. So over the last 10 years of studying them we have found out some pretty amazing stuff. Briefly, we estimated that around 460 mature adult sharks are part of the annual aggregation; they can swim quite long distances (the record for 1 shark is ~400km in 1 month); they don’t like water below 22°C or rough water conditions (which is great as neither do I!) and most importantly for the Spot the Leopard Shark project, the spotting patterns in the adults are stable with individuals matched up to 12 years in the wild!
So while we now know a fair bit about leopard sharks in Australian waters, we still know very little from other locations. This species is distributed in shallow coastal waters of the Indian and West Pacific oceans so they should be found in lots of countries. In Australia leopard sharks are not fished and so their populations are healthy. Outside of Australia it is a different story and really it’s time to start using these techniques that we’ve developed to help understand and protect this species where it’s needed.
Spot the Leopard Shark: Thailand is a joint venture between Thai researchers (Phuket Marine Biological Center) and Australian researchers (The University of Queensland) and the diving community of Thailand. Shark Guardian is pleased to help promote this project in Thailand. Please get involved, spread the word and contribute your photographs. And of course, if you identify a new one to the database you get to name it!