Kristin Hannan Home Page

Kristin Hannan

1. Official Title:  Fisheries Biologist

2. Location: Pascagoula, MS

3. Where you were born or grew up: Virginia

4. Education: Virginia Tech, University of South Alabama

 

1. Your earliest memory...how did you become interested in studying sharks? (elasmobranchs)

I always remember being interested in the ocean, but I think my interest in sharks really started with an “early reader” book I got called Hungry, Hungry Sharks. The book described so many different kinds of sharks and how sharks had been around since before  dinosaurs, which kind of blew my mind.  My first viewing of Jaws, while terrifying, was also fascinating because I actually got to see footage of real sharks. Every summer after I would watch Jaws again and check out all the books in the library I could to read about sharks, even getting my parents to quiz me on scientific names.  It amazed me, and still does, how diverse a group sharks are; from the tiny spined pygmy shark to the giant whale shark, that some lay eggs while others develop their young internally( including some species that supply nutrients to embryos through a placenta) and that sharks are represented in almost all the oceans.  Sharks are impressively evolved animals and the opportunities for studying them and their roles in the ocean are seemingly limitless.

 

2. What research are you currently working on?

I am currently studying the age, growth and reproduction of the odd looking, deepwater fish, Gulf chimaera (Hydrolagus alberti).  Chimaeras are relatives of sharks, skates and rays and look like a bunch of animals all put together with large eyes and heads, long tapered bodies, and a large spine that grows in front of the first dorsal fin.  Unlike sharks that continuously produce teeth to replace those that are lost over the shark’s lifetime, chimaeras retain the same set of teeth that continuously grow as they are worn down by feeding. Chimaeras are also known as ratfish or rabbitfish because of the rodent-like appearance of their front teeth (the scientific name Hydrolagus even means “water rabbit”).  As chimaeras are found in deep water there isn’t very much known about them which is why I am trying to determine how long they live, how quickly they grow and how long it takes for them to reach maturity.  Most researchers age sharks by counting bands or rings in their vertebrae, however this isn’t an option for ageing most chimaeras and some deepwater sharks because their vertebrae don’t get as calcified.  As an alternative method, I have counted bands deposited in the dorsal spine as the animal grows and am also trying a relatively new ageing procedure using the chimaera teeth. On the back side of the front teeth (known as vomerine tooth plates) ridges get deposited that increase in number as the fish grows, meaning that they are a possible record of how old the fish is if we assume that one ridge is created each year.     

 

3. Describe the most interesting encounter you have had with a shark.

A very memorable experience for me was the first time that I ever caught and handled a shark.  It was in the Bahamas and was a very young nurse shark that was caught in a gill net, I was so nervous but also extremely excited!  It was a strange feeling to see such a small animal and feel how fragile and vulnerable it was… not words that often come to mind for most people when describing sharks.  Nurse sharks aren’t necessarily as glamorous a species as some others but I’ll always have a soft spot for them, particularly now having handled many much larger, stronger nurse sharks. It is still pretty awesome to me to think back to that first little one and see the difference between the young and adults.  Getting the chance to interact with animals up close like that is really incredible and feeling both that strength and vulnerability in animals that some perceive as indestructible, makes me feel very lucky. Another very memorable experience was getting the chance to dive with great white sharks in South Africa.  I have been very lucky to experience being up close to different species of large sharks during our surveys, which is always an awesome and humbling experience, but to be so close in the water to even juvenile white sharks was incredible.  Standing on the boat looking down at one swim by, I was blown away by how wide they were, you can really see how they have the power to propel such a huge body out of the water to catch seals!

 

4. What are some of the biggest challenges you face in this line of work?

At times the most challenging part of my job also happens to be the most rewarding.  Studying animals that live in an environment that we are not naturally a part of and that can move over extremely large distances can often prove extremely difficult.  Sharks can be elusive and provide limited opportunities for observation, but add to that being on the water with often rapidly changing or downright bad weather, broken sampling gear, people working together not always seeing eye to eye, and it can be very challenging.  However, managing to still work through all those potential difficulties and get good data is that much more rewarding. 

 

5. What would you say is your biggest accomplishment to date?

There is one experience that I am very proud of that has come from working with NOAA and their Teacher at Sea program.  The NOAA Teacher at Sea program allows teachers from elementary school up to college to come out and work with NOAA scientists on research cruises.  Jennifer Daftari, a 5th grade teacher from Jay, Oklahoma, came out on our annual survey, and together we came up with an idea for a shark coloring book to be created with her students. After a lot of email exchanges and conversations with Ms. Daftari’s students, the end result was the “ABC’s of Sharks” coloring book.  Each letter describes a different shark related idea or word and was illustrated by the students. The final product was fantastic and I am so proud of all the hard work and effort that the students put into the book.  I also not only got to go visit with the students of Jay, Oklahoma, but also got to take part, with Jennifer, in a NOAA Heritage Day in Silver Spring, MD. While participating in Heritage Day, I was able to speak with hundreds of people about our work with sharks at NOAA and give a presentation about the research we do. It was an extremely gratifying experience to share our work with so many people who might not normally get a chance to hear about what we do and why sharks are so important in the oceans. 

 

6. What do you like most/least about your work?

Getting the chance to spend so much time on the water and interact with sharks every year on our annual surveys is one of my favorite parts of my job.  While being out in the field and sampling can get very hot, dirty, wet and tiring, even these less glamorous aspects of my work often end up providing the best stories later. 

 

7. Any advice to those wanting to study sharks (elasmobranchs)?

I was given some good advice when I was first interested in a job as a marine scientist: to be open to different experiences and opportunities be it jobs, internships,  or volunteer positions, even if it doesn’t seem like the exact fit for your interests at the time.  Following that advice, I’ve had a chance to work in a variety of positions as a student, field technician, aquarist and intern with different types of marine animals including humpback whales, lingcod and octopuses from Alaska to Australia. Every one of those positions and the people I met there have helped build my skill set, increased my knowledge and made me a better scientist. 

 

8. What mystery about sharks would you like to solve?

I think the thing that is most interesting for me in studying sharks is that I might never have it entirely figured out, that some mystery will always be there to keep researching.  In science we try to gather as much evidence as possible to answer a question or find a way to explain some behavior or trend that we observe, but there’s always that possibility that there’s something else at work or there’s going to be an exception. 

 

Myth: Megalodon sharks are living in the deepest part of the oceans

Fact: The latest estimate is that Megalodon went extinct approximately 2.5 million years ago.  Fossil evidence also suggests that Megalodon lived in shallower, temperate waters and so would not be adapted to survive in the extreme cold of the deep ocean.  Additionally while some bony fish species are known to live in the abyssal depths of the ocean (>4000m) sharks are not known to occur at those depths, possibly due to limitations of their body chemistry.

 

Myth: Sharks don’t get cancer

Fact: While it appears to be rare, sharks can develop cancer. While it is not known for sure why sharks appear to have a higher resistance to cancer, it has been hypothesized that it could be related to their different immune systems or properties of their cartilage which may suppress angiogenesis, a process that promotes tumor growth. 

 

Please include any links to publications you would like to share:

Link to the coloring book:  http://teacheratsea.noaa.gov/books/pdf/DaftariAlphabetBook.pdf

 

When you are not studying sharks what do you like to do?

Spend time with my family, swim with my dog and bake.