Can shark populations help predict tropical weather?

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Some species of sharks and their locations could be an indicator of whether tropical weather is about to strike an area, according to new research that supports previous work conducted by Florida’s Mote Marine Laboratory.

That research from summer 2001 used a series of underwater receivers that tracked the positions of 41 young blacktip sharks fitted with transmitters ahead of Tropical Storm Gabrielle in a nursery area of Terra Ceia Bay. Dr. Bob Hueter, a retired shark researcher with Mote Marine Laboratory and current OSEARCH Shark Tracker employee, was involved.

“We were able to track them as they responded to the hurricane before it even got here — as they left and then rode out the hurricane outside and then came back in,” Hueter said of the research.

He said sharks in shallow environments, such as in lower Tampa Bay, tend to move into deeper waters when a storm brews.

“The deepest depth is maybe about 10 feet in lower Tierra Ceia Bay, maybe 10 or 12 feet, most [likely] less than that, so if a hurricane comes through, you can imagine how it turns that whole habitat upside down. And clearly, it’s time for them to get out and get into deeper water,” he said.

Hueter said he believes the sharks can sense the barometric pressure through their inner ears rather than be alerted by wind or rain, as humans are.

“As that started to plummet, they said, ‘It’s time to go,’ and then they left and came back up after the storm had passed,” Hueter explained.

He said the black tip sharks eventually returned in “about a week or so” after the storm had passed.

The new research looked at tiger sharks and other large sharks off the coast of Miami. The new research states that four large species of sharks were tracked in Little Bahamas Bank and Biscayne Bay, during Category 4 and 5 storms, including Hurricane Irma.

Thirty-two sharks, including the tiger shark species as well as nurse sharks and great hammerhead sharks, were tracked for the research.

While some of the tracked sharks moved from their area during a storm, the outlier was the tiger sharks, near the Bahamas, which didn’t seem to move away.

The research found that tiger sharks monitored in the path of Hurricane Matthew in 2016 didn’t leave their areas before or after the storm, and daily tiger shark detections, in fact, doubled after the storm passed.

Hueter calls the work with tiger sharks and their lack of movement during tropical weather “preliminary.”

He also called tiger sharks “interesting in the shark world” for their unusual behavior and that the species are known as “roamers.”

”I guess in the case of these Bahaman sharks, they just decided to ride it out right there and apparently, just picked up where they left off after the storm had passed,” Hueter said.

The Atlantic hurricane season officially started Tuesday.

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