After a shark’s bite, DNA kits could track down a culprit (or at least a species)

Updated: Apr. 17, 2019 at 5:59 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - University of Hawaii researchers are developing a new tool to help them learn more about sharks around the islands.

They’ve created forensic kits to collect DNA when there is a shark bite.

They hope to determine which species is responsible for the bite ― and if possible, identify the actual animal involved.

At first, scientists weren’t sure if the DNA would be washed away in the ocean. They conducted experiments by having tiger sharks bite sections of surfboards.

“It now seems the natural stickiness of the mucous that covers the shark’s body works in our favor,” said Carl Meyer, an associate researcher at the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

They recently gave four kits to the state Land Department’s Division of Aquatic Resources to use as a tool when they respond to bites.

Before using them, however, the state is waiting for more research to answer questions such as how long samples remain viable on a surfboard or clothing.

Meyer is looking for private sponsors to help fund further development of these DNA advancements.

“You can expect to see this technology emerging in different places around the world as a tool for helping to gain a better understanding of the circumstances surrounding shark bites,” he said.

The state is still funding acoustic monitoring of tiger sharks off Maui. UH researchers tagged more than 40 animals after a spike in bites that started in 2013.

“Maui has a naturally very attractive shark habitat and yet somehow it’s gone from multiple bite incidents every year to a couple years where there hasn’t been anything,” said Meyer.

Last week, Meyer and his team retrieved 14 underwater receivers. They’ll spend the next couple of months analyzing the data from the tiger sharks they tagged several years ago.

“We want to see whether the animals that were present right there in the waters next to where people were getting bitten, what they’ve been up to - whether they’re still there, whether they’re visiting the beaches as frequently or whether they’ve changed their patterns of movement slightly,” said Meyer.

“The broad goal of all this work that we do is to try and get the kind of information that will help us to help people avoid shark bites.”

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