Sharks 'Could Predict Weather'

By Jonathan Heffer

Sharks could be used to predict freak weather, such as hurricanes, following research carried out 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 that sharks move to deeper water as storms approach, scientists in future could monitor their behavior to anticipate severe weather fronts.

It is thought Ms Smith's work is the first of its kind to attempt to test the pressure theory.

Her research took her to the Bahamas and was carried out in the wild on lemon sharks. Back at Aberdeen's National Hyperbaric Centre, she used their near relations, the lesser spotted dogfish, known as rock salmon in chip shops, for further research. Ms Smith, originally from West Bromwich, said: "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.

"I've always been keen on travelling and diving and this led me to an interest in sharks. How many other students get the chance to put a shark in a chamber to study its behavior?"

She added: "There's so much more we need to understand."

Ms Smith's research was prompted by an earlier study of shark behavior carried out in Florida, which coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Gabrielle in 2001.

Observations suggested that juvenile blacktip sharks moved into deeper water as fronts approached.

It has been established that sharks sense pressure using hair cells in their balance system. The chamber at the National Hyperbaric Centre can mimic the pressure changes experienced in and around the ocean which are caused by weather fronts.

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

While working at the Bimini shark lab, she observed the behaviour of juvenile lemon sharks by attaching data-logging tags to them.

The tags recorded pressure and temperature and tracked the sharks using acoustic tags and GPS technology.

On her return to Aberdeen, and faced with an absence of sharks in the freezing waters of the North Sea, Ms Smith turned to the dogfish – also known as the small spotted cat shark – which is caught in huge quantities by Scottish trawlers.

She was able to continue her study into the effects of tidal and temperature changes in a controlled environment in the aquarium.

The National Hyperbaric Centre began as a Scottish Development Agency project and was acquired in 2005 by an independent company led by entrepreneur David Smith.

It recently celebrated its 20th anniversary with a multi-million pound plan to build the world's largest and deepest test chamber.

The project, which could cost up to $10 million, would allow the centre to test subsea equipment to a depth of more than three miles.

Mr Smith, the centre's managing director, said: "Lauren's groundbreaking work underlines the diversity of work and research which goes on at the centre.

"We look forward with interest to the publication of her findings."

Long before meteorologists provided daily forecasts, people looked to signs in nature to predict the weather:

• The scarlet pimpernel, or "poor man's weather glass" is a flower which opens its petals, if the sun is out but closes tightly when it senses rain.

• The woolly worm, which is normally banded black and brown, appears more black if there is to be cold winter, according to the State Climate Office of Northern Carolina.

• The tails of squirrels are believed to be bushier if there is to be a hard winter, and they know to store more food.

• Birds roost more when the pressure falls as the less dense air makes flying more difficult.

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