Shannon Corrigan is a postdoctoral researcher with the Florida Program for Shark Research.
1. Where are you from?
Sydney, Australia! I grew up a couple of hours north of the city but I lived in Sydney while studying. I also lived in Hobart, Tasmania and Adelaide, South Australia prior to moving to the United States in 2011.
2. Why did you want to be a scientist when you grew up?
I don’t remember wanting to ‘be a scientist’ as a kid. I was just always interested in the natural world, worried a lot about environmental issues and loved biology class. A mixture of luck and perseverance allowed me to continue pursuing such interests, leading me to a career in science.
3. How did you come to study sharks? (Brief summary of your career)
I now have broad research interests that encompass natural history, biodiversity, conservation, and evolutionary sciences. I took a couple of molecular biology classes during my undergraduate studies and realized that genomic techniques were really very useful for addressing questions falling under those themes, while also being technologically interesting. So, I joined a Molecular Ecology lab for my graduate studies and began using molecular techniques to study relationships among species and populations of wobbegongs (Orectolobidae). I quickly realized that cartilaginous fishes, in general, were ideal study subjects for someone with my interests because they are a relatively small (~1200 species) but widely distributed and remarkably diverse group, with an excellent fossil record. These attributes allow taxon rich, comprehensive studies of biodiversity that can also be tied to temporal hypotheses about diversification using archival museum and paleontological records. Many species are also of conservation concern and I was cognizant that inferences from molecular data could also have conservation/management applications. Some wonderful collaborations and have allowed me to continue studying cartilaginous fishes over the course of my career.
4. What are the current projects you are working on?
I primarily work on the Chondrichthyan Tree of Life Project, a large collaborative project that aims to document extant cartilaginous fish diversity and phylogeny. Specifically, I have been involved in efforts to collect molecular sequence data for a representative sampling of all cartilaginous fishes, using this data to estimate phylogeny together with inferences based on anatomy and taxonomy.
I also continue to pursue interests in population genomics of a range of elasmobranch species. Most recently, the Lenfest Ocean Program began supporting our group to apply modern genomic tools to study the population structure and demography of thorny skate (Amblyraja radiata), a species of conservation concern in the western North Atlantic.
Other recent work includes developing a protocol for collecting whole mitochondrial genome sequences from environmental DNA sampled from seawater, for the purposes of conducting elasmobranch biodiversity surveys in coral reef environments.
5. Why should people care about your work?
Cartilaginous fish exhibit remarkable diversity. Much more diversity than many people realize. From filter-feeding giants to bioluminescent sharks, electric rays, warm-blooded sharks that traverse the oceans, carpetsharks that ‘walk’ across the substrate using their pectoral fins, they are not “invariant relicts” of our ancient past but rather are highly specialized, modern organisms that exhibit interesting adaptations to many different environments. An accurate documentation of this diversity should serve as the foundation for any research or conservation program. This diversity also makes cartilaginous fishes excellent study subjects for those that are interested in comparative biology and discovering how and why these animals live, look and behave as they do.
Cartilaginous fish also play an important role in ecosystem functioning as apex- and mesopredators, and their loss could have severe ecosystem-wide effects. Sadly, the conservation status of these animals is also often overlooked. Many cartilaginous fishes are vulnerable to population declines due to overfishing and habitat loss. Extinction risk is estimated to be higher than exhibited by any other vertebrate group, even considering that many cartilaginous fish species are so little known that we are unable to make accurate assessments of their status.
People should care about our work because we’ve entered an era where genomic research can be extremely powerful for informing our understanding of the diversity, evolution, biology and conservation of this ecologically and evolutionarily very important, and very interesting, group of animals.
6. What is your favorite shark or shark fact and why?