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Baby Sharks
(No, Not the Song)
 
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When we were first envisioning Hakai Magazine, I threw out the idea for a semi-regular column called “Sex on the Seashore” that would delve into the myriad ways marine organisms reproduce. As someone with a marine biology background, I thought the subject matter would be fascinating, of course, but even if we went for it (we didn’t) my proposed title wasn’t going to work. (In this internet era, we knew it would probably attract the wrong kind of readers.) If the column ran, though, elasmobranch (sharks, skates, rays) reproduction would have been at the top of my list. Elasmobranch reproduction is captivating, as this shark story explains, and, on occasion, I’ve been a midwife of sorts to some. I live on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, and after winter storms I sometimes find the egg cases of big skates and longnose skates tossed up on the beach. Ever hopeful, if I find one I carefully cut a little window in the tough egg case hoping to see an intact egg or two. Sadly, they were always, uh, scrambled.

But for a few years, I worked at a marine research station where every so often an intact egg case with skate embryos—sometimes so young their feathery gills were still exposed on the outside of their bodies—was brought into our teaching lab after being snagged as by-catch. We’d carefully cut a hole in the case, place it in a small dish and into a tank with a continuous stream of seawater where we’d try to keep it alive for as long as possible. If we had a baby skate nursery on the go, it was, without fail, the main attraction for anyone visiting the station, fascinated by the transformation as the yolk shrank and the baby skate grew. So when Claudia Geib brought us the story of a group of biologists trying to perfect the technique of extracting shark or skate egg cases from their mothers and raising the babies until they could be released into the wild, I was pretty confident we had a winning story on our hands. And Geib didn’t disappoint. I hope you’ll enjoy her story of a few determined people trying to make a difference.

Adrienne Mason
Managing editor
 
 
 
This Week’s Stories
 
 
Raising Baby Sharks from the Dead
 
Biologists are rescuing baby sharks and skates from recently caught females, giving the unborn a chance at survival.
 
by Claudia Geib • 4,100 words / 21 mins
 
 
 
The Inconsistent Ethics of Whale Research
 
Countries that formally oppose whaling also routinely fund scientific research that relies on the products of whaling.
 
by Kieran Mulvaney • 800 words / 4 mins
 
 
 
Unlocking the Mysteries of the Outer Coast Killer Whales
 
Off the United States west coast, so-called outer coast killer whales hunt from deep-water canyons.
 
by Sarah Keartes • 950 words / 4 mins
 
 
 
Steller’s Sea Cows’ Ecological Legacy
 
A new paper explores the ways these extinct megaherbivores would have reshaped kelp forests across the North Pacific.
 
by Devon Bidal • 750 words / 3 mins
 
 
 
One Great Shot: An Invisible Shield for Fish
 
When you’re at the bottom of the food chain, even transparent protection helps.
 
by Michael Patrick O’Neill • a quick read with one great photo
 
 
 
 
What We’re Reading
 
A disastrous spill of up to 477,000 liters of oil off Orange County, California, last week is being investigated as responders scramble to clean beaches and wildlife areas. The US Coast Guard has suggested an errant boat anchor—potentially from a nearby cargo ship—dragged a 1.2-kilometer length of pipeline 30 meters along the seabed, creating a gash that released the oil. (CNN, Associated Press)
 
Beaches and fishing areas in western Venezuela are also fouled by oil that poured from an undersea pipeline for 10 days in September. Upwards of 50 oil spills have been reported in Venezuela in 2021; the September incident was this particular pipeline’s fifth leak in the last year. (Reuters)
 
An ancient oil tanker laden with more than a million barrels of oil—more than 250 times the quantity of oil spilled off Orange County—is sitting in the Red Sea, ready to sink, catch fire, or explode. (New Yorker)
 
Even as a volcano on La Palma in the Canary Islands destroys homes, smothers banana plantations, and forges a new peninsula, research into a previous eruption off nearby El Hierro reveals that nutrients from lava and ash can stimulate marine life. Within three years of the 2011 eruption, the sides of the underwater volcano were covered with life, from fish to octopuses. (CBC, The Guardian)
 
The quest to identify life blooming in inhospitable places will soon drive NASA and European Space Agency missions to one of Jupiter’s moons. Microbes may be eking out an extreme existence in volcanic fissures on Europa’s seafloor, buried below 16 kilometers of ice. (Wired)
 
 
 
 
Seagull saying, "Got a story worth squawking about? Reply to this email to share your tip."
 
 
 
 
With daylight waning and crisp fall weather setting in, local reptiles and amphibians (collectively known as herptiles), like this northwestern alligator lizard, will soon hide away underground or beneath rocks or logs to hibernate. Cold-blooded northwestern alligator lizards, which look a little like miniature alligators, are usually secretive and skittish around potential predators, but this one seemed unfazed when spotted basking in some final rays of sunshine. Good thing, too—when they feel really threatened, the lizards bite or release a stink bomb of musk and feces. As a last resort, they sever (autotomize) their own tail, creating a decoy.
 
Photo by Josh Silberg
 
 
 
Behind the Story
 
 
Claudia Geib, author of this week’s feature, “Raising Baby Sharks from the Dead,” talks about reporting her story and making do with a virtual baby shark in these pandemic times.
 
It’s not easy to Zoom with a baby shark. This is something I learned quickly while reporting on this story, covering a handful of projects around the Mediterranean that are raising baby sharks and skates from recovered egg cases. I like to imagine that, in another time, my reporting on this trip would have whisked me off to Malta and Spain, where I would have watched baby sharks wriggle free from their egg cases in person. But in the era of COVID-19 and travel restrictions, Zoom would have to do. 
 
As Greg Nowell, founder of SharkLab-Malta, held his phone to the wall of his office aquarium one morning last spring, the newborn shark was almost impossible to see: the stippling of black spots that camouflaged it against the sand immediately made sense. But then the baby shark moved. It flicked its tail and drifted up from the bottom where I could see it was a perfect, tiny miniature of the adult female it came from. It opened its minuscule mouth and snapped up a scrap of pink squid drifting through the tank, and Greg and I both cheered. 
 
Though I might enjoy some wistful griping about Zoom reporting, the greatest challenge of this story didn’t really come from anything on the other side of my webcam. It came from a heavy reality check from one of my sources, who suggested that the work these shark nursemaids were doing was basically pointless: that raising baby sharks and skates would do little to rebuild the population, and that they most likely end up as food for a larger fish. Ultimately, that realization made this story emblematic of a much bigger issue today. Whether it’s cutting back on plastic, or driving less, or watching a baby animal slip back into the wild, many of us are struggling to do something—anything—in the face of climate change and floundering biodiversity. We do these things even if we might quietly know our personal activities are, ultimately, a wash. As I cheered for that days-old shark enjoying one of its first meals, I completely understood. The feeling that we’re doing something good for nature is going to be an important one as we face the even greater challenges that are surely ahead. Even if it doesn’t do much to recover other species, maybe the hope that it brings can sustain our own. 
 
Photo by Asociación Cayume
 
 
 
 
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