Dr Laura Ryan is a shark sensory biologist from Australia, who focuses on vision in sharks, and more specifically how they perceive potential prey. She completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia and has begun her first postdoctoral position at Macquarie University. Laura recently worked with Oceans Research to collect data for her project, so we took the opportunity to interview her about her career.
How important was science to you growing up?
How I ended up studying sharks is through an undergrad in marine science. I just wanted to be in the water… anything to do with the water. As I started my undergraduate I actually really enjoyed the research side (including the statistics!) and it didn’t matter so much if I was on the water. It’s ok that I don’t spend every day on the water, but it’s a bonus when I get to.
How close do you live to water currently?
A couple of hundred meters. The amount of days I spend on the water tends to be concentrated in bunches e.g. a month at a time. Luckily I spend every weekend on the water.
What do you do on the water?
Surfing. It’s the reason I love the water. I grew up surfing with my family and that’s where my love of ocean began.
What made you decide to focus on your current field of study?
It’s probably related to surfing again. I’ve never been fearful of sharks, but definitely fascinated by them. They’re a large animal with not a lot known about them in the sensory fields and I think a lot of those unknowns is what attracted me to study sharks. They are really interesting.
Do you think there’s much more to find out about them?
Definitely. If you look at where we’re at with some of the visual studies compared to other animals, we’re somewhat behind. There’s some obvious limitations with studying sharks. When you add the element of water, plus big animals and big teeth, they become a lot more complicated. It’s fun trying to overcome those difficulties though.
What’s more important… science or a conservation?
I think you can’t have one without the other. For me conservation is very important, especially when struggling with an experiment. If it’s not going as planned, you remember the reasons you’re doing it and one of those reasons is conservation. That’s why I should do it and keep going rather than giving up.
Do you think that all your research should have goal of conservation in the end?
I think our work has a few good reasons why they’re important. Some are really clear, like the deterrent work. If we can protect swimmers then we can protect sharks and potentially other animals by limiting the more invasive methods of shark deterrents. However, our work on understanding how sharks see has not only allowed us to design potential deterrents, but is also vital to better understand the evolution of vertebrate visual systems and the pressure that has shaped vision.
It also must be very interesting to learn about their vision.
Definitely. I’ve enjoyed trying to model shark vision. So creating a mock shark visual system. I really like that because you’re trying to understand the different behaviours of sharks from their perspective.
What’s your favourite animal and why?
I really like a lot of the benthic sharks they often don’t look like a stereotypical shark, they have lots of variation in skin colour and markings, which is interesting. They’re also cute and I love the way they get excited over food, especially with the Port Jackson shark. When they get fed they often get super excited and swim up the side of the tanks.
Do you ever name your study animals?
We have to ID the different individuals, so the last group of Port Jackson sharks were named after different chocolates. I find it easier to remember their IDs this way.
What can you tell us about your past research?
They’ve been very varied. Apart from vision I have also looked at swimming speed in sharks, so using different methods to look at cruising speed. I wanted to find out what speed they moved at when first identifying prey, which is important for understanding aspects of their visual system and visual behavior, but it is also applicable to many aspects of shark research.
Were there any surprises?
The title was … “It’s not just size that matters”. Shark swimming speed is species specific and we were able to make a model that predicts the speed of most sharks based off of a small number of shark species’ measurements. It’s been really useful for the visual modeling I do, even though swimming speeds might not have been measured in that species, I have an estimate, which can be used across the models.
What’s the fastest shark?
Some of the lamnidae sharks had the fastest cruising speeds.
How have you been finding Mossel Bay as a base to collect data for your research?
I think Mossel Bay is a great place for shark research because of how close the sharks are and the weather is really good, most of the time. The shelter of the bay means that we can get on the water most days. Not to mention the very pretty view from the boat, and we often get to see a whole heap of other animals besides sharks.
Where else in the world would you like to go for your research?
I love to travel so would go anywhere and everywhere. As a surfer, Hawaii might be a good choice and also back to Mossel Bay… but maybe in summertime. Hawaii also has some really good shark researchers, beautiful weather, and access to some really cool species.
What has been the most interesting aspect of your career so far?
I think I’ve been really lucky with the experiences I’ve had and coming to Mossel Bay, I have been to Mossel Bay a few times now and it’s always amazing. To have the opportunity to come over here and meet with researchers and such a great team at Oceans Research has been awesome. I’m looking forward to returning over the next few years.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
I really like my team at Macquarie and would love to stay at the university. I still have a lot I want to do on sharks but would like to also work on fish and maybe some terrestrial species. Also looking at not only vision but other sensory systems, but sticking with sensory systems. One of the techniques I enjoy doing is called electrophysiology. This uses an electrode to record electrical activity from different parts of the sensory system thus allowing us to determine if an animal can detect a certain stimulus. There is a lot of potential to use this technique to understand sensory perception in sharks.
Didn’t you publish a paper recently on shark electrophysiology?
Yes, looking at visual responses of sharks including how quickly they can resolve an image. Many household lights flicker, but flicker at such a fast rate we can’t resolve. We use a flashing light stimuli to determine how quickly a shark resolves images and how well they detect contrast. It relates to how they see motion. That was one of the more important findings of the paper. They can detect two different greyscales that are quite similar. So they’re good at detecting an object from the background They seem to forego other aspects of vision (such as colour and fine detail) in order to have good contrast which makes sense in a low contrast aquatic environment.
What would be your ultimate goal as a scientist?
The direction I want to take my research is always changing and evolving as I learn more so it’s a hard question for me to answer. I feel like I’m still in the early stages of my career but really love the research we are doing now. I’m not too sure where it will take me.
Is there anyone specific you would want to work with?
There’s not a massive number of scientists studying neuroscience and particularly vision in sharks. . There are a couple of really good groups in Australia I’d really like to work with, and people I worked with in the past on my PhD that I’d love to work with again.
What was your PhD?
My PhD focused on motion vision in sharks, I was fortunate to learn a wide variety of research techniques from some great scientists. My PhD project was directly related to my current research as a post doc at Macquarie University, where I continue to try to understand the visual world of sharks.