Shark Week: Meet Biologist Vicky Vásquez
Vicky Vásquez studies 'Lost Sharks' at Moss Landing Marine Labs (MLML) where she also serves as the marine lab's Social Media Manager. Her research highlights include the discovery of the NInja Lanternshark (Etmopterus benchleyi) and being part of the first research team to ever tag a Goblin Shark (Mitzsukurina oswtoni); science communication experience includes several appearances on Shark Week, podcast co-host of Ocean Science Radio, and regular emcee for the International Ocean Film Festival.
Thanks to Vicky for sharing her shark story with us!
Vicky with a frilled shark
1. What is your favorite shark and why?
My favorite shark is the Cookiecutter Shark, because it doesn't kill it's prey, it just leaves a scar! Now that little saying isn't entirely true, but I like the idea of a shark out there breaking the mold of what we think a shark could be. Although they are ectoparasites on larger prey, like whales, Cookiecutters will eat bit size prey too. In addition, a school of Cookiecutter Sharks feeding on the same prey may do more harm than just leave a scar.
2. What is one species of shark you would like to see on Shark Week?
More deep sea sharks! Specifically, I would love to see Shark Week invest their time into capturing footage of deepsea sharks in their habitats. They are in a better position than most deep sea researchers to record these hard-to-reach underwater worlds. If I had to pick one shark, I would narrow it down to Ghost Sharks! Side note: I only narrowed that down to a Sub-Class. There are multiple species of ghost sharks and new ones are still being discovered! One example is the Eastern Pacific Black Ghost Shark (Hydrolagus melanophasma), discovered a few years ago by Dr. Kelsey James.
3. What is one thing you wish people knew about sharks? I'll take this question a step further and add something I would also like people to 'do'. Okay so, I would like people to know that Lost Sharks exist. Lost Sharks is a term coined by my professor to depict lesser known and undiscovered species. Now the thing I wish people would do about it, is SPREAD THE WORD. The reason is because organizations like Shark Week, tailor their content to what their audience wants to see. I know many people have disliked Shark Week's sensationalizing of (most typically) Great White Sharks and as a result boycott the entire week. I completely understand this perspective, but supporting the educational shows could help a great deal. For instance, on Shark Week 2019 there will not be another episode of Alien Sharks. This has been a long running series that not only highlights lesser known shark species but discusses the latest research going. Full disclosure/ I'm proud to say- my lab, the Pacific Shark Research Center of Moss Landing Marine Labs, has been featured several times on Discovery's Alien Sharks. Supporting shows like Alien Sharks shows the network higher-ups that they can get the ratings they want with solid content. Now with that said, this year Shark Week has a show, literally called 'Lost Sharks'!. Despite the name, my lab is not personally involved. However, the show's stated premise is all about 'Lost Sharks', and specifically one my professor, Dr. David Ebert has spoken a lot about. To learn more, check out this article from a few years back by the California Academy of Sciences.
Vicky and Dr. David Ebert with a tagged goblin shark ready for release
4. Can you tell us a little about your current work with sharks?
On the research side, most of what I do has been mentioned in the other questions. However, there's a huge side to working with sharks that isn't highlighted as much as it should (in my opinion, that is). And that is- science communication!!! The latest research being conducted on sharks & their relatives does not always reach the public. When shark science does make the news, misinterpretations by the media do occur. Consequently, it's great to have scientist translate their work and the work of their colleagues to make sure a public audience is receiving correct information. For some reason, dry facts don't always capture an audience (I think facts are cool!). Therefore, my goal in science communication is to get the audiences' attention and hook them into the story. In doing so, I have found this approach helps people to learn about important topics without it feel like additional 'homework' added into their lives. One project I am currently working on is with the Ocean Science Radio podcast. Since the beginning of 2019, I have been using this platform so as to bring the 'ocean' back into people's daily lives and in order to do so, I have to make the audience care and I have to keep them interested. Curious how immortality found a way in the ocean? Did you know there's a whole month dedicated to sharks?! And it's not Shark Week. To learn more check out Ocean Science Radio on your listening service of choice (iTunes, Spotify, Soundcloud etc.).
5. What has been one of the coolest/most interesting things you have seen/learned working with sharks?
Coolest thing I was ever told was in Japan while filming for Shark Week's Alien Sharks. On this particular field day, my profesor was trying to convey the significance of finding a Salamander Catshark (Parmaturus pilosus). So he put it this way: only 5 scientists have seen this species in the field. The first person was Garman in 1906, and the other 4 were on the boat that day ..that day was more than 100 yrs after the first sighting!
Vicky with a Salamander Catshark