Image courtesy of Jeff Kubina via flickr
Given all the fearmongering about sharks, it may seem hard to believe that these creatures could one day be prized by humans - for their ability to predict storms. Aberdeen University's Lauren Smith, who has spent the last few years studying their lateral line system, or balance system, for her dissertation, believes scientists should monitor their behavior to anticipate bad weather fronts. Hair cells in their lateral line system, which allows sharks to sense slight changes in pressure in the water column, help them orient to water currents and locate potential prey.
Smith is one of the first scientists to test the so-called barometric low-pressure theory. While working at the Bimini Shark Lab in the Bahamas, Smith did several experiments in which she attached sensor and acoustic tags to sharks to simultaneously record their location and variables such as pressure and temperature. She also conducted several trials at Aberdeen's National Hyperbaric Center in which she replicated the pressure changes caused by severe weather fronts to monitor the sharks' behavior; she found that sharks, perhaps anticipating the bad weather, reacted to the changes by moving to deeper waters.
In the future, Smith hopes her research could be applied in situ to anticipate serious weather events or disruptions in the water column, such as the tsunami that overwhelmed Indonesia a few years ago. A biological technique of tracking the weather and sea-level changes could prove more accurate, or at least more consistent, over the long run than many of the high-end buoys currently deployed in several regions of thew world.