Discovering Shark Facts from Researcher Toby Daly-Engel

Are you guys familiar with Shark week? Its a week-long marathon of shark-related shows that runs on Discovery channel every July. I recently heard of this concept and started looking around for shark experts to cover their work. I pretty much struck gold when shark researcher Dr. Toby Daly-Engel from the Florida Institute of Technology agreed to chat with me.

Shark Expert Talks About her Research and Why Shark Conservation Matters

Dr. Daly-Engel specializes in marine biology but uses a mix of tools from different disciplines in her research. For instance, in her Shark Week show, Great White Shark Babies (yes, she had her own show that aired on Discovery this year!!) she followed female sharks to observe their reproductive behavior and heavily used DNA data from baby sharks to trace back their family history.

A large part of my interview with Dr. Daly-Engel is published elsewhere, but I still wanted to write about her work on my blog as well. First of all, because not all of us know much about sharks (besides their vicious portrayal in scary movies). I certainly learned a lot from the interview and wanted to share that with you all. Secondly, Dr. Daly-Engel is one of the few female researchers leading her own research group AND conducting fieldwork, as at the time she started her work the field was pretty much male-dominated. She absolutely deserves the success she now has and people like us should celebrate that.

I hope you enjoyed my discussion about sharks with her. Note that to minimize content overlap with my other publication, I have only covered questions here that I did not get to include in the other post. I really encourage you to read the full interview to know the full scope of her work.

Interview with Shark Researcher Dr. Toby Daly-Engel

Dr Daly-Engel_Toby

Dr. Toby Daly-Engel, Florida Institute of Technology

One of your research topics in the past has been female promiscuity in sharks. Could you tell us more about that?

That’s an evolutionary hypothesis that females of any organism bear the bulk of reproductive burden compared with the males as they give birth or lay eggs. And so, they benefit by finding one highly fit mate to potentially sire their offspring.
But, what we’ve found is that despite the fact that those expectations hold true, female mating with more than male in the course of a breeding season is common in every type of organism, more or less, that we’ve studied, especially among vertebrates, but also in insects. Females mating with more than one male is called polyandry or female promiscuity, if you will, is super common, especially among sharks, and sharks have a very mammalian type reproductive system, whereby the female gets pregnant and is pregnant for a long and gets really fat. So, she puts a lot into reproduction and may be pregnant as long as two years, the longest of any vertebrate. And yet, polyandry is really common in sharks.
So, we are still trying to understand what impact that reproductive strategy has on the evolution of populations in general and shark populations in particular.
You perform field work as well as lab-based genetics tools for your research. Do you prefer one over the other?

Oh, I love both of it! I mean, I’m really excited about using as many possible tools as I can to answer questions. You know, I like using genetics because we don’t have to rely on our eyes to understand evolution and behavior, but the results that you get doesn’t answer, with genetics, it doesn’t answer the same questions that you can using tags.

So, there’s some overlap in the types of questions that you can answer, but in order to really understand how evolutionary change is connected with contemporary movement, and other types of things that we must know in order to manage a species, you must use field techniques.

So there are limitations to everything, and there are also some overlaps. So, any question that is scientific in nature, and certainly everything that we want to know to conserve species like sharks, depends on using as many tools as you possibly can.

While Megalodon is long extinct, could you tell us if present-day sharks share genomic similarities with it?
I think it’s a different genus than any of the sharks that are alive. I think the white shark is its closest living relative, or only living relative. But, it’s still pretty different.
What is the common misconception about researchers in your field?

When people hear that you’re a professor, or that you study sharks, they are like, “Oh my God, you must be the smartest person in the room.” And to be honest, I did not get the best grades when I was in school, but I was really persistent, and I worked my butt off, and I’m not very good at taking no for an answer. So, I was able to get to the point where, so far, I’ve been able to study what I’ve really been curious about studying.

My personal relationship with math is not very good. It is kind of a love/hate thing. But you have to be willing to work, and do whatever type of thing you need to do to, you know, scrub dishes, or scrub boats. We have all been up, really, really, really early in the morning sitting in the rain, chopping dead fish. Or just entering data into a computer for weeks on end. Looking at things under microscopes until your eyes bleed. If you’re curious about science, and you are willing to put in the hours that it takes to perfect those kinds of skills, and you’re willing to keep at it, then that’s awesome, and you’ll be able to do whatever you want.


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