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Stony Brook researchers worked on shark study published today

December 5, 2013

By Emily C. Dooley

A study by a team of researchers shows female lemon sharks, seen giving birth in this video, return to their place of birth to have their own litter of pups. Videojournalist: Duncan Brake.

A study by a team of researchers, including two from Stony Brook University, shows sexually mature female lemon sharks return to their place of birth to have their own litter of pups.

The findings, published Thursday in the journal Molecular Ecology, offer up the first evidence that lemon sharks exhibit "natal homing" despite having spent years away from their nursery. Lemon sharks can have as many as 18 pups in a litter.

The study is based on research dating to 1995, when researchers in the Bahamian island of Bimini began tagging and taking tissue samples of lemon sharks. The sharks, so named for their color, tend to stay where they are born seeking protection from predators in the local mangroves until they are about 5 years old.

The females become sexually mature between 15 and 17 years old and returned to Bimini when carrying their young, on average about every two years. During the study, some did so consistently, said Kevin Feldheim, manager of the Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution in Chicago and lead author of the study.

"We're realizing these nursery areas are really vital for these populations," he said. "There's some females that have been giving birth [in the research area] the entire course of the study."

Finding that sharks, widely thought to be a roaming species, have a homing ability to return to specific places could help nations and regions implement specific fishing bans or sanctuary areas to protect the species.

"There are a lot of conservation implications of these scientific findings," said Ellen K. Pikitch, a professor at Stony Brook's School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science based there.

In 2011, the Bahamas enacted anti-poaching legislation protecting more than 40 species of sharks from hunting. Shark fins are a prized delicacy and with two dorsal fins, lemon sharks often fall prey.

Palau, the Maldives and Honduras also prohibit shark hunting.

"National efforts to rein in the shark fishing industry by many countries are likely to benefit homing shark species, like lemon sharks," Assistant Professor Demian Chapman of Stony Brook's marine sciences school and a study author, said in a news release.

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