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Accelerometer Studies of Tiger Shark Swimming Behavior
Principal Investigators: K. Sato, Y. Watanabe, C. Meyer, Y. Papastamatiou
Project Overview

Many pelagic fishes swim through the water column in a series of continuous, vertical 'yo-yo' dives. Possible functions of these vertical movements include behavioral thermoregulation, foraging, navigation and energy conservation. Pelagic sharks show similar vertical movement, and also tend to be negatively buoyant, but the role of these dives in sharks, and the mechanics behind them are unclear. Tri-axial accelerometer data loggers have revolutionized studies of animal behavior and are providing unprecedented new insight into the biomechanics of shark swimming. These devices measure accelerations due to gravity in 3-dimensions, and can be used to reconstruct a high-resolution record of shark body movements, including tail beat frequency and amplitude. This provides an opportunity to address long-standing questions such as whether sharks ‘fly-glide’ to save energy. In theory, negatively buoyant fish could reduce the overall cost of locomotion by nearly 50% by using powerless gliding during descent and actively swimming during ascent but this behavior has never been empirically demonstrated in sharks.

Research Questions
We asked three specific questions about tiger shark swimming behavior:
  1. Do tiger sharks exhibit ‘fly-glide’ behavior during vertical movements?
  2. How does their negative buoyancy affect swimming performance?
  3. How does swimming behavior change when potential prey items are present?
To quantify swimming performance and behavior, we deployed accelerometers and digital cameras on four free-ranging adult tiger sharks in Hawaii. The accelerometers recorded swimming speed, depth, temperature (at 1 s intervals), and tri-axial acceleration (at 1/32 s intervals, 32 Hz) (W1000L-PD3GT, 22 mm in diameter, 123 mm in length, 90 g in air; Little Leonardo Co., Tokyo, Japan). The digital cameras (DSL380-VDT, 22 mm in diameter, 132 mm in length, 83 g in air; Little Leonardo Co., Tokyo, Japan) captured still images (1MB pixels) at 4 sec intervals, and recorded depth and temperature at 1 sec intervals. The accelerometer and the digital camera were attached to a float equipped with a VHF transmitter and timed release mechanism. After 6 h, a pre-programmed release timer caused the instrument to detach and float to the surface, where the VHF transmitter enabled us to locate and retrieve the data-loggers.

Accelerometer on tiger shark fin

Figure 1. Accelerometer datalogger and digital camera attached to the dorsal fin of a tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier).

Released tiger shark carrying accelerometer

Figure 2. A released tiger shark swims away equipped with the datalogger package.

Tiger sharks swam continuously with frequent vertical movements within the mixed layer at mean swim speeds of 0.5-0.9 m s-1, and showed burst swim events during both the descent and ascent phases of the dives. Tail beat frequency was affected by both swimming speed and whether the shark was ascending or descending. Sharks swam with a higher tail beat frequency while ascending than descending, and only occasionally glided for short periods while descending (<3% of total descent time), indicating that their negative buoyancy affected swimming behaviors. Camera images showed many potential prey items (fishes).
Shark Mounted Camera Image Reef Fish Figure 3. In this image from the shark-mounted camera, a school of reef fishes swims straight down toward the reef as the tiger shark approaches.
Ongoing Shark Accelerometer Research
We are building on our successful short-term accelerometer deployments. Our future goals are (1) to increase the accelerometer deployment lengths to capture longer time series of shark behavior, and (2) To instrument other shark species with these devices. We have already successfully obtained 48h accelerometer tracks from a large tiger shark, and 24h deployments on Galapagos sharks (Carcharhinus galapagensis).
Project Publications
Nakamura I, Watanabe YY, Papastamatiou YP, Sato K, Meyer CG. 2010. Yo-yo vertical movements suggest a foraging strategy for tiger sharks Galeocerdo cuvier. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 424: 237–246. doi: 10.3354/meps08980.
Project Sponsors
UH Sea Grant Japan Society For The Promotion of Science