Spots and Sequences: Multi-method population assessment of whale sharks in the Red Sea

  • Royale Hardenstine

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

Abstract

In 1938 Dr. Eugene Gudger concluded of the Red Sea that "whale sharks must surely abound in this region." Seventy years later, multi-method research began on a whale shark (Rhincodon typus) aggregation at Shib Habil, a reef near Al Lith, Saudi Arabia. However, in 2017 and 2018, a dramatic decline in encounters at this site drew questions about the aggregation's future and overall whale shark population trends in the region. In this dissertation, I describe and discuss the two-year decline in encounters and show that neither remotely sensed sea surface temperature nor chlorophyll-a concentrations were significantly different in seasons with or without sharks. Citizen science-based photo identification was used to characterize the northern Red Sea population, the Red Sea population as a whole, show limited crossover within the basin, and connections with another aggregation in Djibouti. Scarring rates within the Red Sea are compared to recent global studies, and the Red Sea uniquely had no predator bites observed, suggesting boat collisions are likely the leading cause of major scars. Finally, building upon previous genetic work comparing Red Sea and Tanzanian sharks using microsatellites, the mitochondrial control region was sequenced, and two global haplotype networks were produced and compared to each other and previous work. The stability of genetic diversity within the Shib Habil aggregation is compared to declines previously measured in Australia. As tourism develops along the northern Saudi Arabian coast and citizen science increases in the Red Sea, population dynamics within the region could be better understood. The genetic connectivity of Red Sea whale sharks to the Indo-Pacific population exemplifies the need for continued collaborative research beyond local aggregations and multinational conservation measures.
Date of AwardDec 2020
Original languageEnglish (US)
Awarding Institution
  • Biological, Environmental Science and Engineering
SupervisorMichael Berumen (Supervisor)

Keywords

  • whale shark
  • Rhincodon typus
  • photo-identification
  • movement ecology
  • population genetics
  • Red Sea

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