This guest post is by Madi Green who is completing her PhD at the University of Tasmania. Madi primarily works on tropical shark and ray species using genetic tools to understand their movements and connectivity between oceans. Madi is also the co-founder of Shark Share Global . Below she tell us a little bit about the Shark Share Global project.
Shark Share: Lending a helping fin.
More often than not, scientists rely on collaborations with others. Whether it’s out in the field, working in a lab, applying for funding, organising conferences or writing a paper; the reality is we need each other. And in a world where we are constantly reminded of competition with other researchers, we often forget why we chose this line of work in the first place – to do meaningful science. Teamwork is key. But we also need samples, otherwise there is no data to collaborate with. When undertaking real science (not what you see on the discovery channel) we usually collect a piece of an animal (tissue), test it a lot of times using a number of methods, and make inferences on what that might mean for the individual, the species, and even the ecosystem. Without sounding too much like a butcher, shark and ray scientists can use all sorts of tissues to help answer pertinent questions. These include brains for cognitive studies, eyes to understand how species hunt, liver for research into toxin accumulation, fins for genetics, vertebrae to understand aging in sharks and muscle to identify what they are eating.
Overtime we have become very good at collecting tissues, but not so good at sharing them. We often do not think outside of our own studies. Chances are you will not be using every tissue collected, nor will you study every aspect of biology that tissues can provide. That is a lot of opportunity wasted. Also adding to the problem is the lack of available storage space for all these tissues. In my experience most institutions do a clean out of all samples every 1-3 years. This is a massive waste of resources, time and money. Too many times I have heard “oh I had those samples but threw them out last year, I didn’t think anyone would want them”.
So how do we overcome problems such as a lack of collaboration and communication, inefficient sampling and limited storage? My colleague and I think we know how and are currently working on the solution.
Over a few conference wines, and too many ‘oh I just threw out samples’ conversations, my fellow shark nerd Lauren Meyer and I discussed how to overcome these problems. This was the beginning of Shark Share Global.
Shark Share is a database designed by researchers for researchers in hope to 1. Reduce sampling inefficiencies and 2. Create collaborations globally between research groups.
The idea is simple, a researcher can submit samples they have collected while out in the field but don’t necessarily have the training, equipment or time to work on. These samples are then available for all Shark Share members who might be interested in undertaking a study with these samples. Instantly a collaboration is created, samples are being used, someone is saving money (always a positive in science) and the result is a multidisciplinary scientific approach on the same specimen. In a way you could say we offer a dating website for shark researchers, matching like-minded individuals from around the world (aka Shark-E-harmony).
The idea of Shark Share was thrown around in 2013 however it has taken three years to gain funding, interest and a good team of database designers. Shark Share’s start-up costs were funded by the public through our crowdfunding campaign (cheers you legends) and following this we received support from the Save Our Seas Foundation. The database is now under construction with a team from the University of Washington and will be fully operational by July 2016. Exciting times.
It hasn’t been easy and we’re not finished yet, but I know this database is critical as it can change how we currently operate in science. We must evolve with the technological world around us, taking advantage of the Internet to create a tool with endless opportunities. We have had interest from researchers working on other species groups including billfish and we believe Shark Share is just the first of many sample sharing databases to come.
While saving researchers time, money and increasing their scientific output is important, we want to ensure we are paying tribute to our species of interest. In my eyes the most important reason for Shark Share to exist is because the more we can test samples, the more we can understand, the more we understand the better we can manage. And that’s the bottom line, understanding leads to better management and protection. Something almost all sharks need at the moment given a predicted ~24% are said to be endangered and another ~47% we just don’t know enough about.
It is through working together, not against each other we can undertake meaningful science, create connections, save money and most importantly understand and protect the biological world around us.