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Sharks in the Ecosystem

Sharks in the Ecosystem

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Published by draculavanhelsing
The Role of Sharks in the Ecosystem
The Role of Sharks in the Ecosystem

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Categories:Types, Research, Science
Published by: draculavanhelsing on Jan 15, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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The role of sharks inthe ecosystem
y Mike Bennett
The great white shark (
Carcharodon carcharias
) (© Ken Hoppen, oceannotions@primus.com.au)
By Mike Bennett
coo o Biomeica Sciences, Te University o Queensan,t. Lucia, Queensan, 4072 Austraia
Fses o te cass Conrctyes are commony reerreo as te cartagnous sesas tey ave seetons maeof cartilage, unlike most other shes whose skeletons areade of bone. However, parts of the skeleton and the jawsn particular, may be calcied to produce stiffer and stronger structures. Te cass comprses te Hoocepa cmeras,gost sars, eepant s, sver sars an rat s an teEamoranc truesars an rays, wt te true sars oustralia represented by 27 families in eight orders (see Lastand Stevens, 1994; Compagno, L.J.V., 2001). Worldwide, thereare aout 1200 nown speces o sars, rays an cmeras,ang up aout 5 percent o a s speces. Austraa sortunate n avng a partcuary rc conrctyan auna,ith about 300 species currently described.Of the 370 extant shark species worldwide, almost half (170speces can e oun n Austraan waters. Neary a ve ne marne envronment wt ew ae to toerate te racsower reaches of rivers. The bull shark (
Carcharhinus leucas
 s however commonly found in estuaries and rivers in tropicaland warm temperate regions, and
spp. may penetrateany ometres up certan rvers o te nortern part oustraa.Sharks occur in a broad range of marine habitats from shallowcoastal waters (< about 30 metres depth), across the continentalshelf (30–200 metres) and slope (200–2000 metres), througho te eep ocean > 2000 metres. Tey occupy waters rome warm equatora zone o Austraas nortern coast to tecool temperate conditions in the Southern Ocean. Within thisarge geographical area sharks can be found living in a broadariety of environments. In the open ocean some are pelagic,vng ter woe ves n upper an me waters, weoters are more entc, vng on or near te ocean oor, asare many speces assocate wt te contnenta sope. Coastaand shelf waters offer a wide range of habitats in terms of depth, water conditions (e.g. temperature, turbidity, salinity,dissolved oxygen) and substrate (e.g. coral reefs, rocky reefs,san, mu. Some sar speces ave very narrow, preerreatats, wereas oters are ae to utse a range o erentabitat types.Speces wtn eac o te 27 Austraan sar ames avefairly similar body forms and, as morphology effectivelydetermines a shark’s ability to exploit the environment, sharkswithin each family tend to play similar roles in the ecosystem.For exampe, mao sars
spp. wt ter streamne,torpeo-sape oes, are generay ae to swm reatveyast an wt energetc economy. Tey can move argedistances and can prey on a wide variety of marine fauna (in particular teleost shes) with their large, powerful jaws andteeth. Sharks with dorso-ventrally attened body forms, suchas woegongs
spp. are aapte or a emersa e-stye usng cryptc patterning and colouration of the body surface as camouage intheir sit-and-wait predator role (gure 1).
Trophic levels
To unerstan te roe o sars n te ecosystem t sunamentay mportant to now wat tey ee on. Sarsare roay perceve as apex preators wtn marnecommunities and, overall, with a mean trophic level of 4.0,occupy the same trophic level as marine mammals. [Trophiclevels are calculated from knowledge of what and howmuc a sar eats. Te oowng are exampes o pant ananma tropc eves TL: Pants occupy a TL o 1.0; mostinvertebrates, TL ≈ 2.5; teleost shes and cephalopod molluscs,TL ≈ 3.2; and marine mammals, TL ≈ 4.0)]. The great whiteshark (
Carcharodon carcharias
) has the highest trophic levelTL = 4.5 ue prmary to marne mammas mang upaout 20 percent o ts et gure 2. At te oter extreme,te zera sa
Stegostoma asciatum
tat ees excusveyon molluscs has a trophic level of 3.1. So, while all sharks arehigher-level predators they are not all true apex predators.
Figure 1. The spotted wobbegong (
Orectolobus maculatus
) may growup to three metres long. This camouaged shark commonly ambushes passing prey, that includes teleost shes, crabs, rock lobsters andoctopuses (© Ken Hoppen, oceannotions@primus.com.au).
Loss of apex predators
commonly asked question is ‘What would be the effect onhe marine ecosystem of losing one or more shark species?’e answer s, owever, uncertan.It is recognised that removal of top predators in terrestrial andarine ecosystems can cause a ‘top-down’ effect on organismsat lower trophic levels. This has been clearly demonstratedn te case o te ep orest ecosystems o te NortPac c Ocean were sea urcn popuatons ncrease as te popuatons o sea otters a maor preator o urcns ecnedue to commercial exploitation. The increased abundanceof algae-eating sea urchins promoted a decline in the kelpforests, changing the whole local ecology. In the North Atlantice over- sng o co
Gaus morua
stocs resute na ramatc popuaton cras an roa-scae cosure o teshery. Cod stocks have failed to recover, probably due to afundamental change in the food web, with other ground show exploiting the niche that cod once occupied.In te case o sars, t s very cut to etermne wate eect o extncton or oca extrpaton o speces onhe marine ecosystem might be. This is due to the complexature of their environment leading to practical problems of ear-roun sampng an an naty to conuct manpuatveexpermentaton wt most speces o sars. It s reasonaeo ypotesse tat tere w e a measurae eect on tecommunity structure following removal of a shark species.Te proem es wt prectng wat te eect may e. Foexample, the loss of 
C. carcharias
our top shark predator,might result in population explosions of seals, sea-lions,smaller cetaceans and other shark species, based on our nowege o ts et. Increases n tose speces, temsevesapex or near apex preators, wou proay ave ow-own or ger-orer eects tat aso ea to canges at tecommunity or ecosystem level.
Processes of predator loss
Te greatest reuctons n sar popuatons occur as a rectresult of directed commercial sheries in Australian waters,with sharks, such as gummy shark (
ustelus antarcticus
) being a principal target in the southern sheries off the coastso New Sout Waes, Sout Austraa, Tasmana, Vctora anWestern Austraa gure 3. Furtermore, tere s a sgn cant bycatch of sharks in sheries targeting other sh species,and recreational shing also results in the reduction of shark numbers.Commerca sng as te potenta to severey mpact sa popuatons n amost a atats, rom saow coasta to eepocean environments. It is of current concern that deepwater (> 200 metres depth) sheries either targeting chondrichthyans,or operating a mixed shery that impacts sharks as bycatch,are operatng wtout a goo unerstanng o sar specesaty to wtstan sng eort. Speces may e extrpateeore we even unerstan ter roe n tese ecosystems.In addition to shing pressures, there are other, anthropogenicactors tat may prouce popuaton ecnes, ncung atatmo caton or estructon, an pouton. Tese eects tento occur n te coasta envronment, ne to uran growtalong our coastline. While limited in geographical terms,
Figure 2. The great white shark (
Carcharodon carcharias
) has thehighest trophic level (4.5) due primarily to marine mammals makingup about 20 percent of its diet(© Ken Hoppen, oceannotions@primus.com.au).Figure 3. Gummy sharks (
Mustelus antarcticus
are a principal targetin the southern sheries off the coasts of New South Wales, SouthAustralia, Tasmanian, Victoria and Western Australia (© Ken Hoppen,oceannotions@primus.com.au).

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