By Arden Igleheart
When Dr. Dan Huber, shark expert and associate professor of biology, was eight years old, his cousin was attacked by a shark in the waters near Daytona Beach. His cousin survived without sustaining permanent injuries, but it left a lasting impression on Huber.
“It was just one of those formative experiences,” Huber said. “My whole family freaked out; no one wanted to go in the water anymore. But they couldn’t keep me out of the water, and I’ve been chasing sharks ever since.”
Huber began attending programs at the aquarium in Long Island and got involved in research when he started college.
Since then, Huber has been on Shark Week about 20 times, with appearances on the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, and the History Channel. Last year, a film crew came to his lab to shoot Huber for a documentary on Megalodon, a 50-foot long prehistoric species of shark.
Huber thought about majoring in architecture in college, but ended up choosing biology. He mainly studies the skeletal mechanics and feeding mechanisms of sharks, which he says is actually important for the fields of architecture and engineering. In graduate school, he saw the ways that shark and stingray skeletons do seemingly impossible things, and managed to do research that connected the two fields.
“Sharks have a cartilaginous skeleton, and if you think about the cartilage in your ears or your nose; it bends when you push on it,” Huber said. “So you wouldn’t think that sharks and stingrays would be able to do the incredible things that they do with a skeleton that bends when you push on it. They’re among the hardest biting, fastest swimming, most powerful animals in the entire ocean.”
This is something that architects, engineers, and biomedical engineers can learn a lot from, according to Huber. Sharks, with their soft skeleton, are able to bite down and break things that are harder than they are. Regenerative medicine is a field that could benefit from knowing this, as shark skeletons maintain this durability while growing.
A recent example of shark biomechanics being used in an engineering field is Olympic swimwear, some of which was designed to mimic shark skin because the skin evolved to reduce drag. Huber knows someone who 3D prints shark scales and is testing their effectiveness on the rotors of helicopters to make their flight more efficient.
In 2008, Huber’s research got worldwide media coverage for applying Finite Element Analysis, an engineering technique, to the feeding mechanisms of great white sharks. Huber explained what a finite element analysis would look like on a chair.
“In the engineering world, any product that you use on a daily basis was designed in a computer program before anyone actually manufactured it,” Huber said. “In that computer program, they can tell different relations about how it will perform; what’s the maximum load that you can sit on with it. How will it perform if you lean back really
fast. So we can take different techniques and apply them to shark skeletons to effectively run shark jaws through crash test simulations in order to understand how they can perform in different situations and how the performance has changed over evolutionary history.”
Sharks are vital for the marine ecosystem, according to Huber. When there are too many of a certain species, it is important for there to be predators like sharks to keep population sizes in check. Humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks a year, according to the journal Marine Policy. The biggest threats humans pose to sharks are catching them in fishing nets and hunting them for assets like fins. Shark populations are being depleted faster than they can reproduce, according to The Guardian.
Four students do research with Huber in his lab in the Science Annex. Haley Amplo, a senior marine biology major, does research on hammerhead sharks, specifically their cephalofoils, otherwise known as their hammer-shaped heads. She stressed the importance of sharks to the environment.
“Sharks are apex predators in the marine environment,” Amplo said. “The marine environment behaves almost opposite of our terrestrial environment. Instead of there being fewer apex predators and a lot of their prey, in the marine environment, a healthy one shows a lot of apex predators and very few prey.”
Huber said that people have a lot of misconceptions about sharks. One is that they are out to attack humans, which Huber says is not true. Most types of sharks are under three feet long and live in remote areas of the ocean where humans would not come in contact with them. The types that are known for attacking humans, such as great white sharks, just happen to live in close proximity with recreational spots of humans. Another misconception is that they don’t exhibit many other behaviors besides eating and attacking. Huber worked closely with horn sharks, his favorite type of shark, in graduate school and he said that sharks have a lot more behavior than people give them credit for.
“A lot of people think of sharks as these mindless eating machines,” Huber said. “But you could have painted all of these horn sharks the exact same color so they didn’t have any identifying marks and I could have in minutes told you exactly who was who based upon little behavioral quirks. When you’d walk into the room, they wanted you to pet them. They wanted physical interaction. There was one of them that if I didn’t pet it it would spit water out at me.”
Kevin Travis, a senior marine biology major, does research on cookiecutter sharks and their feeding mechanisms. He said that shark research is important to the ocean’s conservation.
“It’s necessary because it’s the last frontier that hasn’t been depleted,” Travis said. “Our forests have been depleted but the oceans are relatively healthy and they interconnect. It’s all connected. If fish die, everything else is going to fall with it.”
Arden Igleheart can be reached at email@example.com.