John Denton is a postdoctoral researcher with the Florida Program for Shark Research.
1. Where are you from?
I grew up in Gainesville and then lived on both coasts and in New York City for nearly a decade before coming back full circle, so to speak, to my current position here at FLMNH.
2. Why did you want to be a scientist when you grew up?
I have never considered it a conscious decision, really. I was always compelled by nature and natural history.
3. How did you come to study sharks?
Career trajectories tend in many cases to be nearly as much about the people you meet along the way as they do about the subjects you originally wanted to study. In my case, I became interested in studying deep-sea fishes because I had an inspirational college professor, who had once taught with the person who became my Ph.D. thesis advisor. During my Ph.D., I learned how to do microCT work, which became the focus of my first postdoctoral appointment—in paleontology, working on fossil and recent shark morphology and data analysis. During this postdoc, I met my current advisor, and so the shark work continues.
4. What are the current projects you are working on?
I am currently developing a protocol to identify regions of the genome of the thorny skate that are useful for understanding the population and evolutionary history of the species. The thorny skate was once a part of a US skate fishery, but populations are declining in US waters despite over a decade of protected management. We have methods that can leverage genomic data to make specific inferences about how the species has changed through time, and this information is useful for policy scientists to craft management strategies that will hopefully reverse thorny skate decline.
5. Why should people care about your work?
Scientists are basically sensory organs for society. We take a complex reality with an unknown number of interacting pieces and, through study, identify the important pieces and parse that reality into output that can be used by people, either immediately or eventually. The science I do falls under the broad heading of “evolutionary biology,” where we examine the change in organismal lineages over time. Evolution has built things for billions of years and has produced many of what could be called clever solutions to problems, often by repurposing existing materials. As evolutionary biology, which often focuses on “non-model” organisms, further embraces genomics, we are identifying new classes and structures of genes of interest to applied sciences and medicine.
6. What is your favorite shark or shark fact and why?
My answer to this question tends to change with the discovery of new species and new understandings of how sharks and their relatives are related to one another. An important fact to realize is that the fossil record of sharks and their relatives documents an extraordinary amount of anatomical diversity not seen today. At the moment, I am rather fond of the fossil taxa Traquairius and of the petalodonts. Among recent species, I like the midwater dalatiids, especially the cookicutter shark (Isistius brasiliensis).