Meet Biologist Dr. Alistair Dove
Updated: Feb 28, 2020
Dr. Alistair Dove is a marine biologist from Australia now workings as the director of research and conservation at the Georgia Aquarium. He also continues to conduct his own research which focuses on parasites of marine life and biology of whale sharks. It is a pretty dramatic size difference between a tiny parasite to a massive whale shark, but it must definitely keep the work interesting. Dr. Dove gets the opportunity to dive with whale sharks and other incredible animals at the aquarium and took a few minutes to answer some questions about this amazing work.
You can also follow DOMINO the tagged whale shark!
1. How old were you when you saw your first shark? I honestly don’t know. It feels like sharks have always been in my world; a natural part of the way of things. That’s the way it should be don’t you think? Not that we take them for granted, mind you, just that we can rely on the fact that they are there, and count on them to do what they do to keep the oceans healthy and beautiful. Unfortunately that’s not always the case these days. Some people don’t like sharks and want to kill them. It’s hard to understand, but I think mostly they are just scared of what they don’t understand.
2. What is your favorite species of shark and why? That’s tough! With over 500 species, there are so many to choose from! Obviously I love whale sharks for their size, beautiful spots, gentle nature and unique feeding mode. I also love one of their closest relatives, the wobbegong sharks, which don’t look much like whale sharks at all, but live on the bottom as camouflaged ambush predators. I dig sawfish too, what an amazing adaptation that saw is! I also love the idea of cookie cutter sharks – a tiny 2ft shark that shoots green light out of its eyes and takes bite-sized chunks out of much bigger animals; man, that’s bold! 3. What is one species of shark that would really like to see in the wild? A basking shark or megamouth shark. I’ve spent so much time working with whale sharks that I’d like to see another type of filter feeding shark. I do NOT want to see a cookie cutter… 4. What made you want to become a marine biologist?
I grew up in Australia but I had problems with my ears that kept me from swimming in the surf, so I spent a lot of time playing in tidal rock pools. I still love all the little critters you find there. Every rock pool is a little underwater garden. After that I spent a lot of time on the great barrier reef. I also started keeping a reef aquarium at home and at that point I was pretty much hooked.5. Tell us about one of the coolest things you have gotten to see or do because of your job/research?Hands down the whale shark aggregation in Yucatan Mexico is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. Up to 300 whale sharks in the same place at once. Sometimes they are joined by hundreds of manta rays too and it’s just the most amazing thing to be among all these gentle, giant plankton feeders. They’ve been here since the time of the dinosaurs, so when you’re with them it feels like you are transcending time.6. If you could tell the world one thing about sharks what would it be?There are a lot more types of sharks than the toothy ones most people think of, so open your mind and your eyes to the crazy DIVERSITY of sharks.
7. Describe your typical day of research or work? If I’m at the aquarium I’ll spend a chunk of time in my office responding to emails, writing papers and trying to attract funding to support our research (yawn!), but I also dive with the whale sharks and manta rays in the Ocean Voyager exhibit a lot. In fact, I do a lot of training for different types of SCUBA diving; diving takes practice, just like anything else. If I’m in the field in Mexico, we usually get up very early to go out on a boat to survey, photograph and tag whale sharks. Those can be long days, but you always come home with a smile. Sometimes we go up in a small airplane to count the sharks from the air. Those days are great fun.
Whale Shark Genome Project via Mother Nature Network FULL ARTICLE
"In partnership with Emory University, we recently published the complete genome of the whale shark, the first shark of any kind to have its complete genome sequenced. It gives us an enormous starter set of genetic information about the whale shark that allows us to ask all kinds of questions about the origins of the species—why it is the way it is and how the biology of whale sharks relates to our own human biology. Some of the questions we’re most interested in relate to the immune system. Sharks were the first group of animals to evolve an adaptive immune system, so they were the first to have antibodies in their blood to fight specific diseases. If you look at more primitive fish, they don’t have antibodies. We ourselves use antibodies when our bodies fight off disease. So if you want to understand where our immune system came from, looking at the genes of whale sharks is a great place to start.Publishing the complete genome has taken about five years of continued sequencing efforts. What you’re trying to do is understand the genetic blueprint of the whole animal. Rather than looking at individual genes, you’re looking at all the DNA from the beginning to the end of every chromosome. In the case of whale sharks, the genome is about seven billion letters long—the size of multiple encyclopedias."
8. Whale sharks are so big, how do you measure them? Can you describe the process? Its not as easy as you might think. They won’t sit still while you put a tape measure on them, so we need to find another way. We use two lasers and a camera. You use the lasers on a frame to project two bright dots of light onto the whale shark. We set up the frame so that the two dots are always exactly 2 feet apart. Then we take a photo of the whale shark and we use the two dots like a scale bar to work out how big the whale shark is. We use something called the Law of Proportions. Its actually a really simple equation, but it just goes to show that math is important, even when you want to study sharks. In fact, ESPECIALLY when you want to study sharks!
Whale shark feeding Video: Dr. Al Dove