In April 2015, the University of Florida and the University Press of Florida launched Gatorbytes, a digital book series following the innovative research taking place at UF. Intended to pique the interests of the intellectually curious and to share the stories behind the discoveries being made at UF, the books are written by professional journalists.
“They know how to take complex material, break it down into manageable chunks and tell a story,” says Meredith Babb, director of the University Press of Florida.
We’re taking a closer look at each of the works in the Gatorbytes series to spotlight the journalists working to share these amazing projects and to offer even more behind-the-scenes information about the groundbreaking research.
In The Shark Attack Files: Investigating the World’s Most Feared Predator, Jeff Klinkenberg introduces George Burgess, who most people know as “The Shark Guy.” Burgess is a globally-respected expert in sharks and the curator of the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), a collection of data from nearly 6000 shark attacks dating back to the mid-1500s. The ISAF is part of The Florida Museum of Natural History’s Florida Program for Shark Research, where Burgess serves as director.
Despite his intimate knowledge of every known shark attack on humans, Burgess doesn’t focus on the “bad” side of sharks. On the contrary, he is immensely passionate about dispelling the hysteria surrounding these spectacular animals:
In addition to keeping details about every confirmed shark attack on humans, ISAF is also used to track shark activity, providing a tool for discovering why sharks behave the way they do and where they spend most of their time. This information makes ISAF an invaluable resource for shark research, and with shark research can come more effective strategies for understanding and protecting sharks. One of Burgess’s biggest missions is to bring these strategies to the general public and to spread awareness of shark behavior, increasing support for shark conservation efforts.
Although New Smyrna Beach, Florida is prone to the most shark bites in the world, many of Burgess’s files come from outside of the Shark Bite Capital. ISAF number 3231, for example, tells the harrowing story of triathlete Chuck Anderson’s loss of his right forearm to a bull shark at Orange Beach, Alabama.
Despite the life-changing nature of the attack, Anderson, like Burgess, is an avid proponent for shark conservation. And he’s far from the only shark-attack victim who speaks out on behalf of sharks. On July 15, 2009, Anderson and nearly a dozen other shark-attack victims stood in front of Congress and urged them to increase restrictions on finning, the removal of an often still-living shark’s fins and one of the biggest threats to sharks.
Anderson and his fellow shark advocates understand that sharks are in significantly more danger from humans than humans are from sharks, even after having been attacked. Burgess stresses frequently that while sharks kill an average of six humans each year, humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks, skates, and rays in the same amount of time. Through workshops, presentations, and research, the Burgess hopes to educate the public about the importance of sharks and to help shark-attack victims like Anderson come to terms with their trauma.
In addition to maintaining the ISAF, The Florida Program for Shark Research also runs the International Sawfish Encounter Database (ISED) as a means of educating the general public about shark behavior. The smalltooth sawfish is one of the most critically endangered elasmobranchii (the subclass belonging to sharks, skates, and rays), due to their long life, their high susceptibility to overfishing, and the destruction of their habitat. The smalltooth sawfish is the only sawfish left in the United States, the largetooth sawfish having been virtually extinct in U.S. waters since 1961.
The ISED is a database collection of U.S. sawfish sightings. By monitoring the population, conservationists and researchers gain insight into the size of the population and the species’s habitat preferences—information that is vital for the recovery of the smalltooth sawfish. The Florida Program for Shark Research urges everyone to get involved in the recovery of smalltooth sawfish.
To learn more about sharks and discover more cases from the International Shark Attack File, check out Jeff Klinkenberg‘s The Shark Attack Files.