Mother of Sharks: Book Review

Mother of Sharks by Melissa Cristina Márquez is a picture book (for ages 5-8, but appropriate for all ages!) that takes readers on a fantastical journey through the ocean. A little talking hermit crab named Jaiba is the main character’s (and our) tour guide. Major ocean conservation issues are briefly mentioned. This book also showcases the diversity of sharks.

The ocean conservation issues touched upon include coral bleaching, ghost nets and marine animals as bycatch in fishing nets. Sharks introduced include nurse sharks, sixgill sharks, and mako sharks.

The author Melissa is a shark scientist which is cool in itself. But she is also a science communicator who teaches that sharks are not scary, necessary and need to be conserved.

Where Mother of Sharks truly shines is that the author herself is a Latina scientist in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). She advocates to the main character, a little girl, that she too can become a shark scientist (or any scientist for that matter). The sciences now have women in most/all fields, which historically hasn’t been true. But persons of color, and especially women persons of color, are growing in numbers in STEM.

I loved the illustrator’s, Devin Elle Kurtz, drawings. I especially liked the variety of cartoon-like sharks depicted on the front and end pages. The illustrations really add to the text. They also take you seamlessly to different parts of the ocean with realistic animal illustrations.

Melissa is from La Playita del Condado in Puerto Rico. There are Spanish phrases throughout the text. As a student of Spanish I knew some words and could figure out the rest in context. For those of you who don’t know Spanish, there are translations in the back matter.

A very encouraging letter to children is from the author at the end of Mother of Sharks. There are web resources, Spanish translations, and a brief list of sharks mentioned.

All in all, I highly recommend checking this book for a young girl in your life out either from the library (request it if you don’t see it on the shelf) or from your local bookstore through Bookshop.org I was excited to see Mother of Sharks available at my local Target!

Manta Ray Day!

manta ray named Cherilyn
Manta Ray named Cherilyn (yes, after me!)

Manta Rays!

10 Cool Shark Facts: Your Questions Answered!

bull shark bahamas, bull shark, bahamas
Bull Shark By Albert Kok~enwiki – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

The following are 10 Cool Shark Facts in a question and answer format.

1.How many shark species are there?

There are 512 described and 23 un-described shark species (according to Wikipedia)

2. Are sharks vertebrates?

Yes, sharks are vertebrates. Vertebrates have a backbone or spinal column. In the case of sharks, they have a spinal column made out of cartilage, not bone as in other vertebrates like bony fishes.

2.What is a group of sharks called?

A shoal (this applies to other fish as well)

3. What are baby sharks called?
Pups!

5. Are sharks endangered?
At least 143 species are on the IUCN red list with 210 more as data deficient (meaning we haven’t studied them closely enough to know how endangered the sharks are). But all sharks are in danger of becoming endangered due to overfishing, pollution, and other threats facing our oceans.

6. How many millions of years old are sharks?
The first sharks appeared 440 million years ago.

7. Which shark is the smallest? Which shark is the largest?
The smallest shark is the dwarf lantern shark, which grows to 7.9 inches (20 cm)
The largest shark is the whale shark, which can grow up to 60 feet (but is found to be 18-33 feet long on average)

8. Are sharks found in freshwater or saltwater?
Most sharks are found in the ocean in saltwater, but the river sharks are found in fresh and brackish water (slightly salty water) in Asia and Australia. The bull shark is unique in that it can live both in fresh and saltwater in tropical rivers worldwide.

9. Do sharks have swim bladders?
No, unlike the bony fishes, sharks don’t have swim bladders but the oil in their livers help them stay afloat.

And the final cool shark fact is:
10. How often do sharks eat?
It varies greatly between shark species. A great white shark can go a month without food after a full meal.

Also see: 10 Not-so-Scary Tiger Shark Facts

10 Interesting Great White Shark Facts

and Great White Shark’s Adventure at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Fun quiz on sharks from NatGeoKids

The diversity of shark sizes graphic

Sharks on endangered species list

List of all sharks on Wikipedia

Meet the Pink Manta Ray!

pink manta ray, manta ray Australia
Pink Manta Ray from Australia photo by Kristian Lane/Instagram

Yes, I’m really a pink manta ray

My belly is pink, whereas in “normal” manta rays their belly is white with black spots and splotches on it. I’ve been nicknamed “Inspector Clouseau” from the movies and tv program called the Pink Panther. You clever humans!

Why am I a pink manta ray?

I don’t know, I think I was just born that way. You intelligent humans have ruled out stress. From a small skin sample (a biopsy) they have ruled out a diet full of red food, it’s not an infection or a genetic mutation.

My pink pigments

So now you humans guess that it’s a “unique expression of melanin” or that my skin pigments are just “off”. Duh, I could’ve told you that! After all there are “strawberry blonde leopards,” and “fuchsia grasshoppers,” due to something called erythrism. That causes animals to appear reddish or pinkish.

I’m a boy!

I was first seen in 2015 off of Australia’s Lady Elliot Island. I’m now 11 feet wide (wingtip to wingtip) and yes, I’m a boy. I was last seen as part of a courting train, which is when a line of males (in this case 8) chase a female to try and mate with. Her pheromones are quite irresistible! If she’s looking for unique, I’ve got all the other boys beat–I’m a pink manta ray after all!

My biggest predator…

Even though as a pink manta ray I stand out in a crowd of manta rays, I’m relatively safe from killer whales and great white sharks due to my size. In fact, my biggest potential predator is you humans!

Devil rays

Yes, all manta rays are at risk at being targeted and hunted by humans. Fishermen nicknamed us devil rays because our curled up head fins look like devil horns. We would often get tangled in their fishing nets and ruin them. They really didn’t like that or us because of that.

What are gill rakers?

Now us manta rays are targeted for our gill rakers. They are thin, comb-like strings on our gills that capture all the yummy plankton from the water I strain through my gills. In other words, my gill rakers are what keep me alive!

Even pink manta rays can’t outsmart humans though…

Unfortunately, a new not-so-traditional and controversial formula of Traditional Chinese Medicine utilizes gill rakers and humans now target us gentle and giant beings. We manta rays have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish, but alas, even our intelligence cannot keep us from being hunted, possibly someday to the point of extinction. Coupled with our lack of defense (we have no stingers) we have little hope of surviving unless humans stop targeting and killing us faster than we can reproduce. Its no wonder females have a train of males trying to court them—they only mate every two years and have pups every 2-5 years.

Also see Moby the Manta Ray: Happy Manta Ray Day!

For more on how you can help manta rays, visit these ocean conservation non-profits:

Manta Pacific Research Foundation

Manta Trust

Marine Megafauna Foundation

Wild Aid’s Manta Ray Program

Articles used in this blog post:

Rare pink manta ray spotted near Australia’s Lady Elliot Island

How manta rays gill rakers filter water without clogging

Manta ray reproduction

Manta Rays Have Social Lives!

manta ray, reef manta ray, Manta alfredi
Reef manta ray (manta alfredi) photo by: Shiyam ElkCloner, Wikimedia Commons

Hee, hee. Did you know manta rays have a social life? I know about manta rays social lives because I AM a manta ray. My name is Molly. Humans have only studied manta rays in depth (probably) for decades. Before we were admired for being a gentle giant, fishermen called us “devilfish.” Our curled up head fins look like devil horns, hence the name. Never mind most of the time we’re feeding and our cephalic fins are uncurled. We’d often get caught in fishermen’s nets by accident. The fishermen would get angry that not only did they have to untangle us, but they often had to repair their nets.

In any case, humans have come out with a research study showing that female reef manta rays (Manta alfredi) “show preference” to other female manta rays. I’d say we’re friends, or acquaintances at least for the short-term. We also remember our contact with each other.

We form bonds with other female manta rays over weeks and months but not necessarily longer. That’s okay as many times after a feeding frenzy, or a stop at a cleaning station, we go our separate ways. We don’t vocalize like whales, who keep in touch at long distances. When we get excited socially we can brighten the white splotches on our black backs. But we do have the largest brain-to-body ratio of any fish so it’s no wonder we can use some of our brainpower to recognize others.

The boys, well they’re on their own unless they group with other males, females and juveniles. The main times we all come together are for feeding (plankton for all!), at cleaning stations (ahh…), and for mating. A train of males will trail a female for a long time until she gives in and mates with one. It’s fun, up to a certain point. Who doesn’t like all that attention?

So although scientists study manta rays social lives, we are in trouble nowadays because of our gill rakers. The very body parts that keep us alive are now threatening our lives. Gill rakers are a covering on my gills, which not only help me breathe, but also feed. The gill rakers act like strainers. They filter ocean water as I swim. Plankton in the water stick to the gill rakers. Plankton are the tiny plants and animals that live in the ocean and are at the bottom of the food chain. The plankton builds up on my gill rakers and yum, time to swallow!

Unfortunately many humans covet our gill rakers for the Traditional Chinese Medicine market. There is no traditional formula that contains manta ray gill rakers, just a controversial new one.

I only have 1-2 pups every 2-5 years. That’s not very often, and we certainly can’t keep up with the fishermen killing us.

Other threats to manta rays, which are making us become endangered, are injuries from being entangled in discarded fishing nets, pollution (especially microplastics) and habitat destruction.

For more information on how you can help visit:

Marine Megafauna Foundation’s work with manta rays

Manta Trust and threats to manta rays

Wild Aid’s work in China to save manta rays

Paper published on 22 August 2019: Rob Perryman et al, “Social preferences and network structure in a population of reef manta rays” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

Also see Meet the Pink Manta Ray

Interview with Shark Scientist Melissa Cristina Marquez

Melissa Cristina Marquez portrait
Shark Scientist Melissa Cristina Marquez

Melissa Cristina Marquez is a Marine Biologist, Wildlife Educator, TV Presenter, TEDx speaker, Podcast Host & Author from Sydney, Australia.

Tell me more about Fins United Initiative-how you got started, what you do, and how people can get involved-what are some ways people can help save sharks?

The organization was first established in 2013 in sunny Florida, and was dubbed as “Sarasota Fins.” Inspired by the lack of shark education and conservation integrated into school curriculum’s, I began creating the tools and products I believed will help inspire understanding of these beautiful creatures. As the program’s popularity grew, its educational outreach expanded and the need for a more encompassing name became clear: thus, The Fins United Initiative was born.

The Fins United Initiative is a shark, skate, ray and chimaera education and conservation program aiming to unite fin lovers worldwide. Our mission is to provide easy-to-access information on all sharks and their relatives worldwide through partnerships with educational institutions and other programs.

We are looking for representatives worldwide – and you don’t have to have a background in marine biology, just a passion for sharks and their relatives – to volunteer their time and go to classrooms, clubs, events, etc and give a #SharkTalk! Contact us here.

How do other cultures perceive sharks (other than as scary or dangerous)?

It really varies on the relationship a culture has with the ocean. Some cultures see sharks as these scary monsters will others perceive them as shapers of the land that are to be respected. I’m hoping to publish more information about this in the near future.

How has your cultural background affected your career?

It has made me a strong advocate for not just diversity in science and science communication but also inclusion. Many people think those terms are interchangeable but they are not the same thing. While science and science communication has become more diverse in the past decade, they still are not inclusive. Science, in general, is a very expensive industry to get into, leaving many at a disadvantage. My career has been shaped by my mission of giving my platform to others to speak their truth and their science.

Tell me more about your books and/or podcast-what are they about and how can we find them?

Joining forces with Speak Up for The Blue podcast, the ConCiencia Azul podcast is COMPLETELY IN SPANISH and interviews Spanish-speaking marine scientists, conservationists, grad students, photographers, and more from around the world. We discuss their studies and some of the unique challenges they face (such as racism, poverty, government corruption, etc).

There are people out there who are doing incredible work that doesn’t get highlighted, which is unfortunate. In many cases, they overcame obstacles, including racism and sexism, poverty, cultural and family expectations, and lack of mathematics background, in order to work and excel in the fields that they love. We Latinos y Latinas have the talent, and we often just lack the opportunity. This is my way of providing that opportunity to shine a light on them.

As for the books, I can’t talk too much about them other than it features an Afro-Latinx family that dedicate their lives to wildlife conservation and education. The series pulls from my life experiences, especially with what the main character (a young female) goes through. More information will be available in the next few months!

Interview with Shark Researcher Kristian Parton

Kristian Parton
Kristian Parton

This blog post is an interview with Kristian Parton, from the University of Exeter who is studying the effects of plastic pollution on sharks. He’s @KjParton on Twitter

What are some of the threats to sharks today?

KP- Blimey, where do I begin. It’s probably safe to say sharks (and rays) are some of the most threatened species in the worlds’ oceans. They have a variety of different threats, the most notable of which are without doubt overfishing and bycatch – these two practices are responsible for the removal of the greatest number of sharks from the seas. Then we move onto problems such as shark finning for traditional medicines, climate change, ocean acidification and plastic pollution!

Why should we save sharks?

KP- Well, not only are they absolutely awesome, they’re actually really important for the health and well-being of marine ecosystems. Sharks are top predators in the marine food web and consequently if you remove them this can have knock on impacts all the way down. I think it’s also vitally important to save threatened species for future generations. I remember the first time I saw a shark in the wild, it’s an experience I’ll never forget and I want the people who come after us to be able to experience that too.

How did you get started researching the impact of plastic pollution on sharks?

KP-Initially I was an undergraduate at the University of Exeter in the UK studying zoology, but took all the marine modules I possibly could. I knew I wanted to move straight into research after I graduated and have loved sharks since I was a young boy – so it was a no-brainer for me. It’s difficult to avoid the topic of plastic pollution at the moment, particularly in regards to turtles, seals and dolphins, but I read into a little bit more about how it might be impacting sharks and rays. It turns out the scientific literature is fairly scarce on the issue, so I dived in head first looking to expand our knowledge on how sharks and rays are really impacted by plastics – most notably via entanglement and ingestion.

Why did you found the Shark and Ray Entanglement Network?

KP-We founded ShaREN after our first publication a few weeks ago because we realised the issue of shark and ray entanglement in marine debris was severely underreported. In our research paper, we used Twitter reports to help document entanglement cases for sharks and rays and realised that it was occurring at higher levels on Twitter than it was in the scientific literature. We realised that the best way to try and collect more data on the topic was to create a citizen science platform where people around the world could submit their sightings of entangled sharks and rays. ShaREN is growing quickly and we’ve already had over 30 reports of entanglement since its creation a few weeks ago, but are always on the look out for more reports! If you do spot any entanglement incidents for sharks and rays, you can find the report form here: Shark and Ray Entanglement Network

Who’s your favorite Star Wars character(s)? (Both the interviewer and interviewee are big Star Wars Fans! Are you too? My favorites are the droids, R2D2 and BB-8)

KP-Hahah – that’s a tough question! I grew up around the prequels so I have a soft spot for them. I’d probably initially say Anakin, but he ends up going a bit mad (obviously) so I’d lean towards Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan – what a legend! I can’t wait for the new TV series based around him.

Deep Blue is the Largest Great White Shark Ever Filmed

great white shark
Great White Shark Image by skeeze from Pixabay

The following is about Deep Blue, a Great White Shark most recently filmed in the Hawaiian Islands in January of 2019. She is estimated to be 20 feet long, weigh 2.5 tons, and to be 50 years old. She’ll keep growing throughout her long life. She was last filmed 2,400 miles away off of Guadalupe Island, which is off of Baja California, Mexico in 2013. She also was photographed in 1999.

Aha! I smell it—rotting whale flesh. There’s no smell quite like it. It gets my stomach rumbling, as I haven’t eaten in a month since the last whale carcass I feasted upon.

I can smell blood from miles away. This is necessary in the open ocean. Some dead whales sink and become food for the deep sea life. Thankfully others float, which is where I eat them.

There it is! I’ve found the dead whale. There is a feeding hierarchy, which means the biggest sharks eat first. That means the puny tiger sharks, who had been previously feeding on the whale, sensed me coming and are now gone. They have left me with my own personal banquet!

Great white sharks don’t travel in packs, but occasionally we’ll meet one another at opportunistic feedings such as this. I’ve swum past 2 other large female great white sharks in the area. I’m sure they’ll show up later if they haven’t already eaten.

Mmm, yummy. I open my mouth full of triangular, serrated and sharp teeth and close down on the squishy fat and meat of the dead whale. Blood fills the water around me. Wow, it feels good to have some food in my belly.

I take several more bites, closing my eyes right before I strike. Fortunately this whale can’t bite back and hurt my eyes!

Then some strange creatures show up. They jump off a boat and swim down alongside me. Humans are not on my menu. Not enough fat to even bother with!

Lights flash all around me from the humans. They stay out of my way as I continue to feed. Soon, I’ve gotten my fill of whale flesh. I’ll come back tomorrow when I’ve had time to digest some of the meat.

My belly is so big that I feel like I’m going to burst! I may look pregnant, but I’m not right now. My dozen pups were born while I was off the coastal waters. Now I swim off into the deep blue ocean to digest my huge meal.

Also see 10 Tiger Shark Not-so-Scary Facts

Mirror Self Recognition Test and Ocean Animals

dolphin mirror test, mirror self recognition test, self aware animals
Dolphin reacts to own image in mirror

With recent news that the cleaner wrasse might have mirror self-recognition (MSR), I thought I’d write about the ocean animals that have MSR. Bottlenose dolphins and killer whales have MSR for certain. Possible mirror self-recognition ocean animals include manta rays and cleaner wrasses. An ocean animal that failed the mirror self-recognition test is the octopus.

So what is self-recognition? With a mirror, self-aware animals such as chimpanzees and bottlenose dolphins recognize themselves and don’t react as if the image is another animal of the same species. Some animals that don’t have self-recognition react to their image in a mirror with aggression or other more positive social behaviors.

The mirror self-recognition test is when a human researcher places a mark somewhere conspicuous on a captive animal. With human babies, they place a paint mark on their foreheads. Starting at 18 months, human babies investigate the mark when they see themselves in a mirror.

Then the researchers place the test animal in front of a mirror and judge from their actions (usually curiosity) if they recognize themselves or not. Here are some examples from the ocean:

Bottlenose dolphins in captivity react to a mirror image by “opening their mouths, sticking out their tongues and showing novel behaviors.” When marked, they investigate the mark on their bodies by moving the marked area towards the mirror.

Killer whales in captivity were shown themselves unmarked in a mirror. Then they were marked. The whales behaved like they expected their appearance to be altered. This showed that they have self-recognition.

Manta rays possibly show mirror self-recognition. When captive manta rays had a mirror placed in their tank, they blew bubbles, which they normally don’t do. They also appeared to investigate their image in the mirror by turning their belly towards the mirror and swimming by the mirror repeatedly.

Cleaner wrasses were injected with a mark, which is how scientists mark fish in their studies. When their throats were marked and a mirror placed in their tank, the cleaner wrasses would rub their throats against the tank. Throat rubbing is not behavior seen in wild cleaner wrasses. When the mirror wasn’t in the tank, the wrasses didn’t rub. So seeing the mark in the mirror caused the throat rubbing and hence cleaner wrasses possibly have self-recognition.

As a side note, the inventor of the mirror self-recognition test, Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York, doesn’t think cleaner wrasses have self-recognition and that the study was flawed. What do you think?

Octopuses haven’t passed the mirror test, but in studies they do orient themselves towards the mirror. Octopuses rely on their sense of touch and don’t rely on vision as much as mammals do, so it makes sense they don’t show mirror self-recognition.

On a personal note, I have gone on scuba dives with manta rays off the coast of Hawaii. I looked them in the eye and saw straight into their soul. It was no different than looking into a dog or cat’s eyes. I knew something was going on behind them. I don’t doubt that manta rays are thinking beings and that they may be self-aware.

Websites consulted:
List of Animals That Have Passed the Mirror Test
Article, “Is this Fish Self-Aware?”

Book Review: The Shark Club by Ann Kidd Taylor

The Shark Club by Ann Kidd Taylor
The Shark Club by Ann Kidd Taylor

The Shark Club is an adult fiction novel about a love triangle between a shark-obsessed woman, her childhood love, and the newfound love in her life. It is chock full of facts about the ocean’s inhabitants and is reverent to the ocean itself. It was nice to see written what it’s like to SCUBA dive-not just the mechanics, but the thoughts and emotions that one feels while immersed in the ocean.

As for the love triangle, it wasn’t obvious at the start or through the book whom she’d end up with, and the ending was a bit surprising at first, but was satisfying once I thought about it.

It would be one thing if it were a purely love triangle, but it’s more like a square or even pentagon if you count Maeve’s obsession with sharks despite being bitten by one as a child, and her meeting the daughter of her ex-fiancee, his infidelity the reason for her breakup with Daniel.

Maeve’s love of sharks hindered her first relationship with Daniel as she “chose” the sharks (on an expedition) over Daniel right before they were to be married. Many people are addicted to work and prize it above all else, and Maeve is one of them. I think it’s noble that she’s so committed to her job as a shark biologist and always jetting off to far flung research sites around the world, but it’s clear she has regrets leaving Daniel right before their wedding (and he cheats on her and has a child out of wedlock).

When Maeve meets Hazel, who is 6 years old, she “falls” for the scientist-in-the-making and nurtures her love of sharks and prehistoric sea monsters. They form the “Shark Club” with Maeve, Daniel, and Hazel as members. Maeve and Hazel search for shark teeth on the beach and later make a necklace from it. It’s a cute storyline, and critical to understanding the ending.

All the ocean facts Taylor mentions rang true too me as a marine biologist, but I did wonder why she had to round up the figure of how many sharks a year are killed to 80 million. Usually 73 or 100 million sharks killed a year is the figure given. It’s hard to be accurate with such a high number, and clearly it’s not sustainable to kill that many sharks a year.

The book pays respect to Dr. Sylvia Earle, “Her Deepness,” or as I like to say, the female Jacques Cousteau. She is the most prominent oceanographer alive today, having traveled to the deep ocean and spending 7,000 hours underwater in her life. The protagonist, Maeve, names a lemon shark she likes after her. The author also mentions the on-going lemon sharks studies at the Bimini Research Station in the Bahamas. The book also mentions Dr. Andrea Marshall, also known as “The Queen of the Mantas.” The author mentions her non-profit research facility (The Marine Megafauna Foundation) in Mozambique, Africa. Lastly she mentions Julia Whitty, the author of “The Fragile Edge,” about a woman’s relationship to the ocean.

The side story with her fraternal twin Robin is important, but the ending with him seemed out-of-character and less plausible than the rest of the book. But he, and her aunt Perri who raised them when their parents died, are important in Maeve’s life and that’s why their storylines are included.

I haven’t mentioned the rest of the love triangle, Maeve’s colleague from the Bahamas. Nicholas is technically still married and workplace romances are frowned upon. So Nicholas and Maeve were never officially together, though Nicholas comes to visit her at her Aunt Perri’s hotel where Maeve and Robin grew up and still live. They finally discuss a possible relationship, but put it on hold until Nicholas resolves his marriage in England.

The hotel is in sunny Florida and Maeve has a job there at the Conservancy (forgot full name). If only we all had jobs that would let us fly off to exotic locations for months at a time and still have a job when your return home. This is another reason for you to be jealous of Maeve, besides having two men pine for her.

If you happen to be scared of sharks, I hope you come away from this book with a healthy respect for them. If you love the ocean-especially being in or on it- then run, don’t walk to buy or check-out this book. I requested that my local library buy a few copies and they did! If you like romances, don’t worry as the Maeve biology stuff takes a back seat to the romance.

In short, those who love the ocean will love this book. Those looking for a different sort of love triangle (Daniel, Nicolas, Hazel and the sharks in general) will enjoy this book. There’s no graphic sex so this book could be read by young adults looking to read something beyond teen romances. If there hadn’t been sharks in this book I wouldn’t have picked it up, but fortunately the shark biologist premise sucked me in for 271 pages.