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Meet Marine Biologist Matilde Sort

Matilde is a marine biologist now working as a shark specialist for WWF Denmark .

She is currently researching genetic population structure of elasmobranchs.

Thanks for sharing your shark story with us!

You can follow Matilde's research and work on TWITTER

What is/are your favorite shark/rays and why?

Oh my lord, this is such a difficult question. I love all rays, I mean it looks like they are flying under water. How can anything compete with that? I’m especially fond of the butterfly ones, and all the freshwater ones they have in South America with the crazy patterns. I’ve also always had a thing for blue sharks, because they are just so elegant. Or basking sharks – they are the second largest shark in the world, with possibly the biggest mouth. I dream of kayaking with basking sharks in Irish waters, but haven’t been able to persuade any of my friends to join me, can you believe it?

What is one thing you wish people knew about sharks?

Their evolution. That they’ve been around for 450 million years. Four hundred million years!! That means they have survived five mass extinctions. If that is not incredible then I don’t know what is. I do shark conservation most of my wake hours, because we have inherited these beautiful animals, and it’s our job to protect them.

Another fun fact: There has been a new species of sharks and rays described on average every two weeks since JAWS came out in 1975. We keep discovering new species! I wonder if we’ve fished a species to extinction without even knowing it existed.

Can you tell us about your past research on tiger sharks?

I tried to find out how closely related tiger sharks are to one another on a global scale. I did it by looking at tiger shark DNA from specimens all over the world.

In marine biology language it’s called intraspecific genetic population structure. The more we know in detail about the family history of tiger sharks, the better we are equipped to determine the management units for them. That means how many tiger sharks we sustainably can fish out of the ocean when and where. I fused two DNA databases together, in order to obtain a better overall resolution of the population composition and spatial dynamics for tiger shark. The project is called GenoJaws, and is a collaboration between Universities in Denmark, Australia and USA.

Digging out DNA on 150 years old tiger shark jaw @ Natural History Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen.

Can you tell us a little about your current work with WWF?

At the moment, I work on a project that is focused on the sharks and rays found in Danish waters – as many as 27 different species are living there, but most people have no idea that sharks and rays are animals we have in Denmark. Unfortunately, 55% of the 27 species are listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List , which means that they are threatened with extinction. Since it is very difficult to help protect something you don’t know exist, we are trying to change that.

In the project I am looking into population structure of thornback rays, using DNA. I am working together with University of Copenhagen and several public aquaria in Denmark.

Taking DNA samples from thornback rays @ Kattegatcentret in Denmark. They are called ‘thornback rays’ because their backs are full of thorns. It’s like working with blackberry branches that toss and turn themselves.

What has been the most amazing experience you have had or coolest thing you have learnt since studying shark biology?

This may sound cheesy, but one of the reasons I have continued working with sharks, is because everyone else that work with sharks are such nice people. I’ve always had this geeky admiration for sharks to myself, but when I started studying marine biology at the University, I met other people that were just as deeply fascinated by sharks as I am. It was like meeting old friends, really. The first time I went to the Annual scientific conference of the European Elasmobranch Association (that’s a bunch of long words for ‘fancy shark meeting’), there were hundreds of Europe’s top shark geeks there to talk about nothing but sharks for three whole days. Some of them had even written the shark books I borrowed at the library as a child. So that was quite special.

Other than that, sharks have brought me to Australia, Bali, The Azores, and several beautiful places in Europe – that’s not too shabby either.

Did you always want to be a shark biologist? If not what inspired, you to start working with sharks?

Pretty much, yes. In Denmark, there is a Public Aquarium called Kattegatcentret, where they have sand tiger sharks, and an underwater tunnel in the massive shark tank. As a child I’d visit as often as I could persuade my family to go.

The curator at Kattegatcentret always made quite a show when feeding the sharks, where he’d put on this butcher’s glove made out of metal, in case they’d bite him, he’d be able to keep his fingers, and I just thought he had the coolest job in the whole entire world. I still do, really.

If you could provide any advice for future female shark scientist, what would it be?

Give it all you got. Learn your sharks, and figure out what it is about them that really excites you. Is it how they look? That’s called morphology. Is it how their bodies work? That’s called physiology. Is it how we can better protect them from extinction? That’s called fisheries management or lobbyism. That’s what I’m trying to do. You don’t have to live in a tropical place or be a certified diver to work with sharks. But you have to be serious about it, because there is not a lot of jobs for quite a lot of shark people.

Don’t be shy to contact people whose work you admire. This is so much easier said than done, but everyone will answer you, if you have done your homework about what they do, and you are clear and polite about what you want, and how they might be able to help you. I do not encourage you to do long-term unpaid internships but I do encourage you to attend any shark scientific conference, better sooner than later!!

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