Sharks ‘may predict storms’

Sharks could be used to predict storms following research by a marine biology student. Lauren Smith, 24, is close to completing her PhD studies into the pressure-sensing abilities of sharks.

If her studies prove the theory, scientists in future could monitor the behaviour of sharks to anticipate severe weather fronts.

Research was partly carried out in an altitude chamber at the National Hyperbaric Centre in Aberdeen.

Miss Smith, originally from West Bromwich, had previously investigated the behaviour of lemon sharks in the Bahamas.

She then used their near relations, the lesser spotted dogfish, for further research at Aberdeen University’s altitude chamber at the National Hyperbaric Centre.

It is thought her work is the first of its kind to attempt to test the pressure theory.

It was prompted by an earlier shark habitat study in Florida, which coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Gabrielle in 2001, when observations suggested that juvenile blacktip sharks moved into deeper water in association with the approaching storm.

Miss Smith said: “I’ve always been keen on travelling and diving and this led me to an interest in sharks.

“I was delighted to have been able to explore this area for my PhD, particularly as it’s the first time it’s really been explored fully.

“How many other students get the chance to put a shark in a chamber to study its behaviour?

“Who can say if this could lead to sharks predicting weather fronts, there’s so much more we need to understand. But it certainly opens the way to more research.”

The chamber’s changes in pressure mimic the pressure changes experienced in and around the ocean, caused by weather fronts, and the protocol was approved by the Home Office.

Miss Smith, who completed her first degree in marine biology and coastal ecology at Plymouth University, studied shark behaviour in the wild at the Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas.

It has been established that a shark senses pressure using hair cells in its balance system.

Work at the Bimini Shark Lab enabled her to observe shark behaviour by placing data-logging tags to record pressure and temperature on juvenile lemon sharks, while also tracking them using acoustic tags and GPS technology.

In Aberdeen, she was able to study the effects of tidal and temperature changes on dogfish, none of which were harmed, in the aquarium.

She also tested the pressure theory by recreating weather conditions at the chamber at the National Hyperbaric Centre.

She is due to complete her PhD and prepare papers for publication later this year and will be looking for a job which will give her the chance to expand her experience of shark research.

David Smith, of the National Hyperbaric Centre, described the student’s research as “ground-breaking”.