Isle Of Man / Ellan Vannin

Basking shark secrets unlocked by DIY kit

Basking shark fin
Image caption The dorsal fin of a basking shark is covered with a black slime which is perfect for DNA sampling
Shark slime collecting kit
Image caption Step one of the DNA collection involves attaching a sterilised pan scourer to a window cleaning pole
Scientist collecting shark DNA
Image caption Step two involves a close encounter with a basking shark, something the team have a special licence for
Collecting slime from the fin of a basking shark
Image caption The thick black "diesel-like" slime is collected with a quick swipe of the shark's dorsal fin
Scientist cutting a pan scourer
Image caption The sterile scourer is cut up and placed in alcohol to prevent cross-contamination
Manx basking shark project labels shark slime sample
Image caption Each sample is labelled and sent off for DNA analysis
Shark DNA
Image caption The DNA information can be used by scientists to identify individual sharks and map their movements

Marine scientists have been getting "back to basics" to help unlock the secret lives of basking sharks.

A team of experts in the Isle of Man have come up with a DIY kit comprising of a pan scourer and a window cleaning pole to enable them to collect DNA from sharks.

The innovative design means they can collect dorsal fin slime with the minimum of disruption to the animal.

Basking sharks are classed as "globally vulnerable to extinction" by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the key to their survival is finding out as much information as possible about their movements and behaviour.

Coordinator of Manx Basking Shark Watch, Jackie Hall said: "This kit is about getting back to basics to help global conservation efforts- we are combining practical solutions with cutting-edge science."

Mrs Hall, along with her engineer husband Graham, has been granted a special licence by the Isle of Man government to get close to the sharks for research.

The kit idea came after government vets warned against the traditional method of DNA collection, thought to be too invasive to use on an endangered species.

The old method of DNA collection involves putting a small plug in the shark to get a skin sample.

When he was told by Dr Simon Berrow of Manx of the Irish Whale and Dolphin Watch that shark slime was an ideal substance for DNA sampling, Mr Hall set off for his local DIY store for some ideas.

He came back with a pan scourer and a window pole.

"Having worked with the sharks for several years I thought the best way to collect the slime would be with a brillo pad, well it's not really a brillo pad, it's a green scrubby pad, wrapped round some stainless steel, and attached to the end of a window cleaning pole - it's ideal really because it doesn't harm the shark at all," said Mr Hall.

'Shark passports'

"Another advantage is speed, it's just a quick swipe of the fin - the slime looks a bit like diesel but it smells really crisp, just like fresh fish.

"It has to be sterile so we boil the pads before hand and keep them in sterile packs and alcohol to avoid cross contamination - there is obviously good science behind what we do but it is a simple and low cost way of sampling the DNA," he added.

"Dr Simon Berrow was first to send basking shark slime to Dr Les Noble of Aberdeen University who confirmed that it had DNA in it- Dr Lesley Noble is in charge of the genetics analysis department that analyses the basking shark DNA."

The make-shift DNA collector has proved instrumental in attempts to create a series of "shark passports" which will ultimately make it easier to identify each individual fish.

Along with the DNA profile each passport includes the shark's gender and a high definition photograph of the dorsal fin.

Jackie Hall said: "It takes a great deal of care, skill and some very clever equipment to compile a passport without disturbing the shark, it's essential we don't disturb this protected, endangered species.

"We do everything quickly - we take from a moderate distance [the dorsal fin photograph] and then we have to start our first close approach to establish the gender using the pole camera. Then we have a second close approach to take the DNA swab from the dorsal fin - that is just a quick swipe."

Fin soup

And the work is already revealing some fascinating insights.

Image caption The Hall team have a special licence to conduct shark research

"One of the sharks we tagged actually crossed the Atlantic, this is amazing and worrying at the same time," said Mrs Hall.

"Sharks are still hunted in some waters as part of the finning industry where, horribly enough, they take the fins for shark fin soup and discard the rest of the body - that is the biggest threat to all sharks worldwide," she said.

"If we can provide governments with accurate scientific information about the movements of the sharks informed decisions can then be made about how to manage the marine environment to protect them - it's really important that we find as much information out as quickly as possible because we think there may only be between eight and ten thousand of these amazing creatures left."

The basking shark passport profiling began in the Isle of Man in 2009 and to date, about 100 animals have been identified in the Irish Sea.

In 2013 Jackie and Graham Hall hope to use new technology called Smart Position or Temperature (SPOT) tagging which deploys tags which stay on the sharks for up to five years.

Manx Basking Shark Watch, a registered charity, is a Manx Wildlife Trust project supported by private industry, the Manx government and the Manx Lottery Trust.

Hardman E., Bilton D., Noble L., Sims D. 2011 BSc hons, University of Plymouth: 'Concordance of genetic and fin photo identification in the basking shark Cetorhinus maximus in the Noth East Atlantic.'

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