Scientists dig deep for answers about Alaska's shark population

 (Photo courtesy of Alaska SeaLife Center)
(Photo courtesy of Alaska SeaLife Center) (KTUU)
Published: Jul. 27, 2018 at 6:30 PM AKDT
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During a week of science and entertainment coming together to make "must watch TV," it seems only fitting to dive deeper into Alaskan based shark research projects.

While many Alaskans may not think of sharks having the same presence here as in other areas of the country or world, scientists are learning a lot from the species found off of Alaska's coasts.

"Really we have no idea how many are out there and where they really hang out and what they do," Markus Horning, Science Director at the Alaska SeaLife Center said about his research on sleeper sharks.

Earlier this summer, Horning and his team spent five days on the water in Resurrection Bay hoping to catch a sleeper shark.

"They're very cryptic, they're understudied, we don't know much about them," Horning said. "In part, that may be because they're not a commercially important or even harvested species."

The Seward-based scientist reeled in a big catch for research, a more than nine-foot-long sleeper shark. Too big to bring back to the Alaska SeaLife Center, Horning and his crew didn't let it go without collecting data first.

"We measured, we took blood samples and skin snippets for genetic ID and attached a satellite tracking device to the animal."

Horning said the device was designed to fall off after 180 days and begin transmitting information back to the scientist via GPS signals. Instead, the monitor only collected 16 days worth of data.

"This shark was eaten very likely from off shore killer whales…this data shows a very violent death," Horning said.

A trail of questions, clues and data lead the scientist to the current shark study after a project on sea lions suggested the sharks may have preyed on the mammal.

"We're learning a lot about the interaction of multiple species," Horning said.

Horning says eventually he hopes to catch a smaller sleeper shark that can be temporarily brought back to the SeaLife Center for the project.

Horning isn't the only Alaskan studying sharks in the 49th state. Dr. Cheryl Wilga, professor and Director of the UAA Department of Biological Sciences, recently testified in front of a U.S. Senate committee about how mimicking shark cartilage could inspire medical breakthroughs.

"We discovered they actually get stiffer with more force," Wilga said. "The more force you put on the cartilage the stiffer they get but they remain flexible. So this seems to be a really promising material."

Wilga told the senate committee additional funding for the project would help move into its next phase.

"We need funding to develop the synthetic part," Wilga testified. "So we're not going to use cartilage to make these parts, we're actually going to synthesize out of current applications or current devices that are put inside the body for implants and mimic that increasing stiffness with more force but maintain the flexibility."