Tiger sharks helped discover the world’s largest seagrass prairie

Scientists have teamed up with tiger sharks to uncover the largest expanse of seagrasses on Earth.  

A massive survey of the Bahamas Banks — a cluster of underwater plateaus surrounding the Bahama archipelago — reveals 92,000 square kilometers of seagrasses, marine biologist Oliver Shipley and colleagues report November 1 in Nature Communications. That area is roughly equivalent to half the size of Florida.

The finding expands the estimated global area covered by seagrasses by 41 percent — a potential boon for Earth’s climate, says Shipley, of the Herndon, Va.–based ocean conservation nonprofit Beneath The Waves.

Austin Gallagher, a marine biologist from ocean conservation nonprofit Beneath The Waves, surveys a seagrass field in the Bahamas Banks.Cristina Mittermeier and SeaLegacy

Seagrasses can sequester carbon for millennia at rates 35 times faster than tropical rainforests. The newly mapped sea prairie may store 630 million metric tons of carbon, or about a quarter of the carbon trapped by seagrasses worldwide, the team estimates.

Mapping that much seagrass was a colossal task, Shipley says. Guided by previous satellite observations, he and colleagues dove into the sparkling blue waters 2,542 times to survey the meadows up close. The team also recruited eight tiger sharks to aid their efforts. Similar to lions that stalk zebra through tall grasses on the African savanna, the sharks patrol fields of wavy seagrasses for grazing animals to eat (SN: 1/29/18; SN: 5/21/19, SN: 2/16/17).

“We wouldn’t have been able to map anywhere near the extent that we mapped without the help of tiger sharks,” Shipley says.

The team captured the sharks with drumlines and hauled each one onto a boat, mounting a camera and tracking device onto the animal’s back before releasing it. The sharks were typically back in the water in under 10 minutes. The team operated like “a NASCAR pit crew,” Shipley says.

Researchers had previously suggested tracking seagrass-grazing sea turtles and manatees to locate pastures. But tiger sharks were a smart choice because they roam farther and deeper, says Marjolijn Christianen, a marine ecologist at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands who was not involved in the new work. “That’s an advantage.”

Camera-equipped tiger sharks like this one helped uncover the world’s largest seagrass bed, penetrating areas too deep or remote for divers.

Shipley and colleagues plan to collaborate with other animals — including ocean sunfish — to uncover more submarine meadows (SN: 5/1/15). “With this [approach], the world’s our oyster,” he says.

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