Students Explore Shark Bay — a Time Machine for Biologists

By Dr. Mike Heithaus,  professor of Biological Sciences at Florida International University


Sharks are awesome!  Look no further than Shark Week to see how popular they are, especially with kids.

I have had the privilege of studying sharks for almost 20 years.  The studies that my students, colleagues and I do are focused on understanding how important different species of sharks are for their ecosystems.  Which species are important?  What would happen if they disappeared? While I have studied sharks all over the world attempting to answer these questions, most of my work has focused on one amazing place – Shark Bay, Western Australia.

Going to Shark Bay is like entering a time machine. You see what the oceans were like before overfishing became the norm. Keep in mind, in some places, shark populations have declined by 90 percent or more!  In Shark Bay, there are lush pastures of seagrass beds that are grazed by large populations of sea turtles and sea cows (called dugongs).  Dolphins, sea snakes and fish are abundant.  And huge tiger sharks are there to hunt. To understand whether Shark Bay’s rich biological community is dependent on the presence of tiger sharks, we have to study not only the sharks, but their prey and the seagrass.  As you can see in this video, working in Shark Bay is important because of what we can learn about how oceans work, but it is also fun!  You can learn more about our project on our website.

The awe-inspiring nature of the bay led me and my friend – filmmaker Patrick Greene of SymbioStudios – to ponder how we could really share the wonder and excitement of Shark Bay with students.  We wanted to create something that would inspire curiosity and motivate students while also educating them.

We came up with a project-based video, harnessing the themes of Next Generation Science Standards, that makes students the biologists!  We introduce them to Shark Bay in a short video clip, and then ask them to generate hypotheses.  Next, they see the team in action collecting data.  Students use data from the field to test their hypotheses and generate the next set of predictions.  Through a series of video clips and activities, students investigate the entire Shark Bay food web from the seagrass to the tiger sharks and back down.

You can vary the lesson to fit timeframes (our teacher packet has suggestions) and differentiate the level of instruction by giving more or less information to the students.  This also lets you use the videos across different grade levels.  Teachers from K-12 have used the program and reported that students were engaged and retained key information — including lessons that appear on end-of-year assessments.  While this video project highlights many science standards, it should be particularly useful in teaching the scientific method, food webs and energy flow, as well as species interactions. It is also designed to improve math and graphing skills.  We have specific suggestions on standards that are highlighted in our Teacher Packet as well as all the answers to the questions.  My suggestion — use the video before you teach the specific topics it addresses.  I am always impressed by how much students figure out for themselves.

I hope that you and your students enjoy studying Shark Bay and its tiger sharks as much as I do.  Stay tuned for more bite-sized video-based projects in the future!  We are planning more research adventures for classrooms as part of the Global FinPrint Project  — a worldwide assessment of the sharks on coral reefs supported by Paul Allen’s Vulcan Philanthropy.

If you have any questions, please feel free to email me!   You can find the “Exploration of a Seagrass Ecosystem” project online here.

About the Author

A professor of Biological Sciences, Dr. Mike Heithaus is the dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education at Florida International University.  Specializing in marine ecology, Mike has studied the behavior and ecological importance of sharks, whales, dolphins, alligators, and many other marine and estuarine species.  He and his students work around the world and conduct long-term research projects in Australia and Florida.  Currently, he is co-lead investigator on the Global FinPrint Project.  Mike is also very active in public outreach and K-12 education.  He has written high school science textbooks and developed many science and math videos with SymbioStudios.  He has appeared in numerous documentaries, hosted a 13-episode television series and has made several appearances on Shark Week.

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One Comment;

  1. Essay Universe Helper said:

    First of all we should thank the teachers and administrators for doing what they can to help these kids. Sounds like a third world country so stop with testing and focus on basic education and things that will benefit the kids. Why waste even $100 for testing if you can us the money for necessities. It says a lot about our culture that we will allow children to be homeless.

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