Local biologist discovers 79 new species of sharks
FORT JOHNSON — Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, Gavin Naylor has discovered 79 new species of sharks.
Yep, that’s right, 79 more than the 1,200 or so species of sharks and rays already known to be out there. Nearly 40 known species are found in waters in the South Carolina region.
As if sharks like the Atlantic sharpnose, sandbar, blacknose, finetooth, bull, tiger and occasional great white weren’t enough.
And, oh, it gets worse.
“We’re pretty sure there are a lot more (species) out there. We’re just a bunch of nerdy scientists doing the best we can. I’m pretty sure we’ve barely scratched the surface,” Naylor said.
OK, breathe a little.
Naylor is a biologist at the Hollings Marine Laboratory, working jointly for College of Charleston and the Medical University of South Carolina.
He’s studying the genetic sequencing of sharks, to find keys in the DNA that might explain how and why organisms “sprout new features,” or evolve.
It’s pretty involved science, but it could have profound “real world” applications to genetic medicine and other fields.
Working with Naylor is researcher Chenhong Li, who invented a way to “velcro” individual genes, getting them to stick to molecules so they can be isolated. “It allows us to ‘suck’ out particular genes and compare them across organisms,” Naylor said.
The technique potentially could allow genetic coding to be compared among 1,200 genes of as many as 100 different specimens at a time.
How important is that?
“We used to do it one gene by one gene,” Li said.
Most of the new shark species are “cryptic,” virtually indistinguishable from known species — except the DNA doesn’t match. The team came across them while using DNA to ensure they had the species they thought they did. They’re using sharks for the study because sharks are the oldest surviving vertebrate animals that, like us, have jaws.
Don’t start that movie music in your head. More species of sharks doesn’t mean there are more sharks out there, just more types.
Besides, only five of the species are likely to take a nip out of us. “The incidence of interaction between sharks and humans is not going to change,” a good-humored Naylor said. “Nothing’s changed, just our knowledge.”
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