Sharks on Twitter - a new era of science
Updated: Dec 30, 2020
Kristian Parton is a Masters by Research student at Exeter University and is studying, what we can all agree is, the fascinating topic of marine debris entanglement in elasmobranches. His fascinating topic is matched by the use of some pretty novel data collection techniques for his paper ‘Global review of shark and ray entanglement in anthropogenic marine debris’. The use of social media is relatively unchartered territory in science, however, Kristian’s exploration of Twitter as a way of finding marine debris entanglement cases highlights the potential gold mine of data just waiting to be collected!
His social media persona doesn’t stop there as the #60SecondSharkScience he started on Twitter was a hit, with a short and snappy explosion of shark knowledge to entice shark lovers from all ages and backgrounds. As well as this, he is the co-founder of ShaREN (Shark and Ray Entanglement Network), in collaboration with The Shark Trust, Kristian created this online citizen science database. Anybody can log sightings of sharks and rays entangled in marine debris, resulting in more reliable data for scientists and fisheries to use when assessing the risk of anthropogenic debris to these beautiful creatures.
As if this wasn’t enough, Kristian has also published a paper on microplastics and other contaminant particles discovered in sharks around the UK, including lesser spotted dogfish, starry smooth-hound, bull huss and spurdog! Read on for our interview with this shark enthusiast.
What is the first memory you have of a shark?
I think initially from scuba diving, so I’ve scuba dived since the age of 14. I remember we went to Mozambique and Zanzibar and did a couple of dives with my Dad, it was very very early on so I had the instructor holding me and I remember we were doing this lovely dive 8 metres down. The instructor started shaking me on the back of the tank and he was pointing and looking up and I remember looking up as this beautiful oceanic whitetip just cruised past. I remember being in awe, just in shock of this amazing animal. And it was big, it looked so big, it probably looked bigger underwater and I was young as well and everything looks bigger when you’re a bit younger. I would say that was my first experience with a shark, definitely.
When did you become aware of the need for their conservation?
I got the bug after that dive and started getting involved more and researching about them and wanting to know about them. I’ve loved sharks since I was tiny but the conservation implications I only started learning about after diving, then particularly going to university, you learn more and more about it and that’s when I really started to specialise in shark science and knew that that is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life, hopefully!
What was your degree in?
It was zoology, I initially did animal behaviour but then swapped over because I wanted it to be broader and they didn’t have a marine biology course at university, it started two years after I joined. I specialised in all the marine modules I could possibly specialise in and those are the modules I did way better in.
What was the most common entangling material you found?
The most common material that sharks and rays were getting caught in is something called ghost fishing gear – so that’s fishing gear that’s either been lost or abandoned and it drifts passively around oceans entangling various different marine life. From small organisms to fish and then that starts to attract other organisms so turtles get involved, turtles get entangled, that might attract some slightly larger predators and so on and so forth. It’s sort of like a massive dinner bell to any shark swimming near a piece of ghost fishing gear. They’re going to go there because that’s where their prey is and subsequently can often get entangled. Ghost fishing gear was by far the most common entangling material, I think it was about 96% of animals that we identified on Twitter were entangled in ghost fishing gear and then around 70% from the scientific literature so it was large amounts of ghost fishing gear that was causing the entanglement. And then after that it starts to get into more specific things, so polypropylene strapping bands - things that are used to tie down various crates or pallets they’re sort of a rigid form of plastic that forms a loop – those were the next most common entangling materials. Then you start moving into things like fish aggregating devices which have long straps of netting which reach down into the water and entangle various individuals but there were also some more really weird entangling materials that we saw. We saw one shark entangled in a cap, like a snapback cap and it managed to somehow get its head through the loop and that was around its gills. Another one was entangled in a bright yellow BCD hose that was hooked around the gills, so there are some really really strange entangling materials as well but those were on a one-off basis as opposed to the ghost fishing gear which was the majority of animals.
Why did you choose to include Twitter in your entanglement paper? Do you think this is where modern science is heading?
I knew that I wanted to add some kind of youthful spin to the paper, I’ve read so many papers before that just seem to go on and on and on and I wanted it to appeal to the younger generation of scientists. Twitter in particular because I’m fairly active on Twitter and I had seen reports of entanglement on there but never really thought to quantify it in any way or explore it deeper. I’d seen the images and noticed them but then when I realised that I was going to be using social media I knew to start immediately with Twitter because that’s where I’d seen reports.
So, we can’t rely purely on scientific literature anymore? Your paper notes that 11 elasmobranch species, including keystone species like whale sharks, had reports of entanglement on Twitter but not in the scientific literature. What do you think this means for the future of research?
I think particularly on the topic of entanglement for sharks it was incredibly under-reported. There’s no denying the scientific literature works, there’s no denying that, but there are obviously gaps in our knowledge. I think going forward we will start to tap into more of the virtual databases that exist outside the scientific literature because there’s so much there and I think we can start to learn how to use them in a viable way – there are obviously various biases and things that we have to be aware of BUT moving forwards into the future we’ll probably start seeing a lot more of that kind of research. Citizen science is a fantastic tool and I think it needs to be utilised way more, but the sort of citizen science you can get on social media is really good.
What was your method for searching the entirety of Twitter, just search and scroll until you hit ‘no more results’?
Yeah, it was a big scrolling day! It’s also about keywords - I had to use some of the same words that I used in the systematic literature review, I had to use those in Twitter so when you type not in the scientific literature.
What do you think this means for the future of research?
I think particularly on the topic of entanglement for sharks it was incredibly under-reported. There’s no denying the scientific literature works, there’s no denying that, but there are obvious gaps in our knowledge. I think going forward we will start to tap into more of the virtual databases that exist outside the scientific literature because there’s so much there and I think we can start to learn how to use them in a viable way – there are obviously various biases and things that we have to be aware of BUT moving forwards into the future we’ll probably start seeing a lot more of that kind of research. Citizen science is a fantastic tool and I think it needs to be utilised way more, but the sort of citizen science you can get on social media is really good.
What was your method for searching the entirety of Twitter, just search and scroll until you hit ‘no more results’?
Yeah, it was a big scrolling day! It’s also about keywords - I had to use some of the same words that I used in the systematic literature review, I had to use those in Twitter so when you type #marinedebris you can scroll and scroll all the way down. Luckily, I think the first tweet on shark entanglement was back in 2009 so it wasn’t too far to scroll back but that’s almost 10 years!
Is there any really fascinating information you found on your searches that you had to discredit and not use?
Yes, there was lots, purely because we didn’t have enough information so there were a lot of tweets that said, ‘we’ve found a shark entangled here’ and that was it. There was no accompanying image, no accompanying URL link that we could use to dig in and get a bit more information so there were some that we just had to completely remove because we had no idea what the entanglement was, what the shark was, what it was entangled in. So, there was a lot of those reports, which is why the results in the entanglement study are probably an underestimation, both in the literature and on social media.
Did this paper inspire ShaREN as you mention the need for a citizen science programme? Which came first, the paper or the programme?
So initially in the paper, when I was sending off the manuscript, I had written towards the discussion there is the potential for the creation of some sort of online database for recording shark entanglement. And then I thought to myself, ‘well, why can’t I do that’, so it was the paper first. I wrote about it and then thought ‘let’s do it’. Luckily, with the help of The Shark Trust we were able to get something thrashed out and now ShaREN is collecting data on entanglements all around the world.
How many recordings does ShaREN now have? Is it a daily, weekly or monthly uploading of data?
It’s a difficult one because I don’t see them coming in all the time – so they have to get approved by someone working at The Shark Trust who’s looking at the database and if the entanglement report looks okay then they approve it but between July and November 2019 we’ve had over 78 reports which is already more than the scientific literature reported in the last 80 years! So again, it’s another indication that this is something that is happening at far higher levels than we think at the moment.
Did any part of the process surprise you?
Initially, it surprised me that there were microplastics at all, purely based on the way that they live their lives, the way they feed. They [the species studied] are demersal so they live along the bottom and the plastic that you generally hear about are plastic bits on the surface so particularly filter feeders like manta rays and whale sharks they’re the ones you might be expecting to be ingesting large amounts, but to see them in these demersal species helps us clarify as well that it’s not just plastics floating on the surface of the water, it's actually plastics sinking down into the sediment as well. So, I was surprised to find plastics at all. Surprised to an element but I suppose plastic is now such a dominant material in our world that maybe I wasn’t so surprised at finding it.
Roughly how many sharks were you being given on a monthly basis, and by how many fishermen?
I had 2 avenues – 1 fisherman was based in Penzance, so he was the chap who gave me the majority of the sharks that I worked with and another chap based in Penryn. On average, I’d say about 6 sharks a month and then it was a sort of production line so to speak. So I’d get the sharks in, initially I’d freeze them for a period of time to make sure everything stayed the same, so I’d freeze them down at -80 degrees and then thaw them out when I was ready to perform the dissections and filtrations but the whole production line from getting 6 sharks to analysing that data was quite a long process.
You’ve spoken to us previously regarding seeing vast amounts of Lesser Spotted Dogfish, piled box upon box on fishing boats – just to clarify for the purposes of the study you were taking only a tiny proportion of the sharks caught via by-catch?
There were a lot of individuals, and we know that by-catch is one of the biggest threats to shark populations globally so there was an element where I wasn’t very surprised at how many they were catching but yes, I only took a very small percentage of the total amount that were by-caught.
What was the relationship between you and the fishermen like?
It’s a good working relationship. It was quite difficult to find one at the start to work with the scientists because…
It was hard to find one that trusted that you weren’t the enemy?
Yes, exactly, and that was the difficult thing initially but I met with a fisherman in Penzance. I went down at 10 o’clock in the morning and we met at the pub and had a pint together and he was so happy to help me with this because he realised that actually, we really need to start working together, both those in the fishing sector and the science sector and when we start working together we can start really getting some good data and start solving various issues that we have.
Sharks are notorious for their curiosity and exploration of that curiosity with their mouths, so what’s the weirdest thing you found when dissecting the sharks?
Generally, it’s just plastic and food. I saw some kelp in some Lesser Spotted Dogfish, which I didn’t realise they ate so that was an interesting one. I didn’t find any large fragments of plastics, like a straw or bottle cap – it was nothing that big, but generally normal things that they should be eating like crabs.
What inspired the #60SecondSharkScience?
I started seeing more on Twitter of sort of science communication and people doing interesting tweets with cool graphics and I’ve always wanted to try and get involved in some kind of science communication just to spread the message to a wider audience. So #60SecondSharkScience, I was sat in my living room chatting with my housemate and because I’ve got various shark species in the shed in the freezer, I thought to myself, those are just sat there at the moment, I could put those to use. How can I start raising a bit more awareness about these species that a lot of people don’t know even exist in UK waters and I thought that [#60SecondSharkScience] was the best way to do it. Short, sweet, keep people’s attention and engage a wider audience, particularly I’m trying to reach out to school children. I know they might not be on Twitter but their parents are, and I’ve had a couple of people come up to me on Twitter and say ‘my son loves your videos’ and that’s great to hear.
How have you found the response to the hashtag?
I think generally people are really enjoying it at the moment and that’s awesome to see because initially I didn’t think it would get anywhere near as much attention as it has got. I know it’s not massive but there’s been a good response to it for sure and I think people are actively enjoying on a Sunday waiting to see the video come online and that’s really nice to see, definitely.
You attended the European Elasmobranch Association Conference, did you present?
Yeah, so I presented a conference poster. I did want to do an oral presentation but didn’t get the chance because it was super oversubscribed, so I did a conference poster which was quite cool. I never got good marks for my conference posters back when I was doing my undergrad which was quite strange, funny I say that, my conference poster was the only landscape poster at the entire conference! So, I walked up to pin my little poster to the board and I walked past all the lines of posters and realised that every single one was portrait and so when I got to my position I had to sort of squeeze it in between 2 portrait ones. I was so so embarrassed, but it went well, a lot of people liked the poster, liked what we had to say about the citizen science project ShaREN so that was good, sort of spread a bit more awareness about that and there were a few cool features on the poster as well that I put on. There was a couple of QR codes that people could scan on their phones and it would automatically open up the report form or automatically open up the paper so they could quickly get to those if they wanted to. So, yeah, people liked the poster but I think next time I’ll definitely being doing an oral presentation, for sure.
Are you planning any other conferences/events in the future?
I’d really like to go to Sharks International, I’ve heard a lot of good things about it – but definitely I’d be doing an oral presentation, that’s how I prefer to get the message across. I think you get a bit of a buzz from doing an oral presentation – all the adrenaline before you get on stage and then talking to a big wide audience.
What’s next – what’s after the masters?
Initially, I’d like to have a break, just a brief break, a few months maybe just of rest and relaxation! And then I’d really like to get back out into the field because one of the main reasons I got into shark science was seeing sharks in their natural habitat living their lives. I think over the last two years, yes the research that I’ve been doing is important but I’ve seen a lot of dead sharks and that gets you down a little bit so I’d like to now go into the field again perhaps for a couple of years just get some more hands-on experience with sharks. And then after that, who knows, could be a PhD I’m not sure, maybe, BUT I think education is something that’s always interested me, I’ve always loved giving talks to kids about sharks and they’re a great audience to talk about sharks too because at that age they just love it. Everything about it, they’re so into and so they’re probably the most captive audience you could ever ask for.
Kristian’s Investigating the presence of microplastics in demersal sharks of the North-East Atlantic paper can be read here: http://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-68680-1.