Women in Science: Christine Dudgeon
Updated: Sep 30, 2021
Welcome to Shark Guardian’s Women in Science feature where we highlight the incredible work that women do in shark and ocean conservation around the world. Our first scientist is Christine Dudgeon, a long time partner, supporter, and friend of Shark Guardian's so we couldn’t be more excited to share her story with you. Without further ado let’s get stuck in!
Important note: This article will feature and reference the regionally named Leopard Sharks. These same sharks are internationally known as Zebra Sharks (Stegostoma fasciatum).
Q1. Can you tell us about the path that led to your current job role?
I have been fascinated by the oceans and sharks from a fairly young age. Going to the beach was my favorite family holiday. I grew up inland in Australia, in a city called Canberra, which was 2 hours from the coast. I moved to Townsville at 17 to study marine science at James Cook University and enjoyed living in a tropical place. There was not much research on sharks up there at that time so I focused on reef fish and also some coral research and developed genetic skills. I spent a lot of time volunteering for different projects to gain experience in the field and research diving. Eventually I decided to do a PhD and started looking for projects on sharks. I did some traveling as well and went to South Africa to work as an intern on a white shark research project. This was great experience and increased my enthusiasm. I eventually found a project based at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, which was focused on the ecology and evolution of leopard sharks. This combined my interests in diving and genetics, and given it was a species that not much was known about, also enabled me to be a bit explorative. Following my PhD I had two children and worked part time while also accompanying my partner overseas for two study leave trips for his work as a professor in psychology at the University of Queensland. I kept involved with shark and ray research by undertaking two postdoctoral fellowships – one was focused on leopard sharks and included the Spot the Leopard Shark Project (STLS) in Thailand, and one was focused on manta ray research in Australian waters. During this latter project I started expanding my research portfolio and supervising students working on different species and questions, including some more applied studies on population structure for commercial fish species. I started my current position as a research fellow a year ago and manage a research project based on Lady Elliot Island investigating nutrient flow from the land through to the sea and connectivity of the reef with surrounding areas. This includes some of the shark and ray species, but I have had to expand my skill set to work with birds and turtles among other things. My path has not been direct but I have made it my own.
Picture: Zebra shark (Stegostoma fasciatum) / Leopard shark
Q2. Tell us about some of your favorite experiences with sharks?
I have a few. One of my first favorite ones was with a white shark in South Africa. There was a 4m male circling the boat and I stuck my hand in and grabbed its nose for a ‘nose up’ – this is where the shark stops swimming due to the sensation of the electric pulse from your hand and then opens its mouth in a gape and slowly drops in the water. Essentially like a tonic response. I thought it was crazy when I did it but it was quite extraordinary to be that close to such a formidable predator.
I have had many fantastic encounters with leopard sharks. They are so placid and calm around us in the water that it’s really just a pleasure to spend time with them. Recently we were diving at Julian Rocks in Byron Bay and the sharks were quite frisky – we think it must have been mating time and they were quite active and swimming around us. They kept popping up all around us and it was brilliant.
A couple of years ago I was on an expedition looking for whale sharks in the northern Great Barrier Reef and we found a small aggregation. The last shark we tagged was so curious about our boat – it was an 8m long male shark. We had an opportunity to jump in the water with him and he was so curious about the people in the water he would swim over to everyone to check them out. I never knew whale sharks could be that curious.
I also have to mention manta rays. They are an amazing animal to be in the water with. I have been very fortunate to spend a lot of time with mantas, observing them at cleaning stations, and quite often you are not sure who is watching whom.
Q3. Have you had any unexpected experiences due to a career in the sciences?
Many. I have had opportunities to go to remote and beautiful places as well as spend more time in places that I enjoy. I appreciate the opportunity to take my time underwater observing animals and being immersed in another world.
Spot the Leopard Shark Project
Christine is one of the lead researchers behind the citizen science project Spot the Leopard Shark, Thailand. This was launched on Koh Phi Phi Island in Thailand, in August 2013. Submitted photos and information are used to address population sizes, areas of importance, changes over time, and provide clues to basic information such as how long these wonderful sharks live.
Q4. Why is the Thai population of leopard sharks of particular importance?
The population of leopard sharks around Phi Phi Islands in southern Thailand is one of the largest known populations globally and the largest known in the tropics.
Q.5 Can you give us a little more information on the confusion between leopard sharks and zebra sharks?
This is just a common name issue. Where these animals are found in the wild they are called leopard shark mostly. The confusion is due to there being another ‘leopard shark’ which is an American species only found in the eastern Pacific ocean. The zebra shark name comes from the juvenile form. The two species are quite different and are not found in the wild together but the name zebra shark persists because both species can be found in captivity together at times. However, if you ask most people in the West-Pacific region what a zebra shark is, they probably don’t know.
Picture: The leopard shark (Triakis semifasciata) by Daina Buchner
Q.6 Has the leopard shark monitoring program highlighted any trends or interesting findings you can reveal to us?
Yes – we’ve identified over 300 individuals and found some interesting findings following animals from immature to mature status. We’ve also found individuals tend to be re-sighted at the same reefs. So even though they move around they may have preferred habitats. We’ve also found that they are there all year round. This differs to seasonal aggregations in the sub-tropics where large changes in water temperatures appear to drive movements.
Q.7 What are your plans for this project in the future?
We’d like to continue it. The project ran strongly for a couple of years and we would like to repeat this effort to compare how the population has changed 6 years later. Also, the project is migrating to a newly established global database, WildMe. This will allow the contributors to upload their photos to the database and find out about re-sightings.
Q.8 You mentioned your love of and work with manta rays earlier, could you tell us a little more about that?
There are a lot of similarities between my work on mantas and leopard sharks as we address similar questions and use similar techniques to answer them. I work as part of a research group called Project Manta, within Australia, and have worked with lots of different academics and students and the tourism industry. I’ve learned a lot from the team and have had lots of opportunities to spend time in the water with manta rays for photography, tagging, biopsy and observing cleaning behaviour. There is a fair bit more information available for manta rays as there are several research groups working on the two species across the globe. It would be great to see some of that effort being put towards leopard sharks.
Q.9 What have been some of your favorite moments working in marine science?
One of my most favorite moments was sitting on a boat with the engine turned off surrounded by a herd of dugongs who kept surfacing to breathe. This was in Moreton bay off Brisbane Australia where dugongs gather in herds of hundreds of animals. It’s a beautiful, peaceful experience.
Q.10 What are your experiences as a woman in science?
I have had a mixture of good, great, and frustrating experiences. I felt I had a lot of support and encouragement during my undergraduate and PhD programs and never really felt any barriers to my interest in science due to being a woman. I have found the post-PhD period more challenging, particularly as I am also a mother. In science, your currency is publication output, and when you have kids it can be tricky to maintain that output. Unfortunately, the system is not very kind to people who take time out to raise children and the vast majority of those are women. It becomes increasingly harder to get back into science and I have seen too many really smart, hard-working and talented female scientists leave the field because they have had enough. The expectations can be too high to balance with the priorities of raising a family. And the demands of children don’t go away once maternity or paternity leave is finished. I truly believe that we need to change the system and stop penalising scientists - both male and female - for having kids and taking the time to raise them. Instead, we need to level the playing field and make it possible for them to pursue their careers and make valuable contributions.
Q.11 Do you have any advice for other women who are dabbling with the idea of a career in science?
Science is very rewarding but can be hard work. Be tenacious, be flexible and be passionate.
Christine collecting tissue samples from a Leopard shark.