Movement ecology and conservation of marine predators

"The movement of organisms is a fundamental feature of life that is central to almost all ecological and evolutionary process"

The movement of organisms is a fundamental feature of life that is central to almost all ecological and evolutionary processes. It affects survival and reproductive success, and influences the structuring of populations, communities and ecosystems. However, we lack a basic understanding of the mechanisms underlying when, how and why organisms move and disperse in natural habitats.

The research of the Sims Lab is focused on the movement ecology and conservation of marine top predators. Our research explores the patterns, mechanisms, causes and consequences of predator movement.

By studying the behavioural strategies of free-ranging marine fish, for example during searching and foraging, we address general questions in ecology: How do predators structure movement? Are there predictable ‘rules’? Do movement patterns change across scales? What causes the observed patterns? How are spatial re-distributions altered by environmental changes? What does this mean for predator conservation?

Our main approach is to track individual free-ranging sharks and other top predators using advanced telemetry (biologging) techniques, such as satellite-linked archival tags and radio-linked acoustic positioning systems. We integrate this spatial movement data with environmental fields (e.g. in situ sampling, remote sensing) and with novel analytical tools and simulations we test behavioural models to help understand what causes the movement patterns observed.

All images are copyrighted © to David Sims, the MBA and Jeremy Stafford-Deitsch.

Current research is in three main areas:

Spatial Ecology and Fishery Interactions of Oceanic Sharks

Knowing the movements, habitat use and changing distributions of marine top predators such as sharks is crucial for effective conservation and management. Surprisingly, however, the spatial dynamics of oceanic sharks are poorly understood, particularly in relation to where fisheries exploitation actually occurs, and despite there being global harvesting with very few regulations to control catches. The Sims Lab is undertaking several projects with international collaborators by using satellite tracking and spatial analytical approaches to determine space-use and interactions of sharks and fishing vessels across fine to ocean scales, and how these are driven or altered by changing environmental conditions and other factors.

Behavioural Ecology and Ecophysiology of Sharks, Skates and Rays

Understanding why marine predators exhibit certain activities and behaviours at certain times requires new approaches to measure movements and energetic costs. This is particularly challenging for animals that remain on or near the seabed all their lives. Members of the Sims Lab together with collaborators use bio-logging techniques, and long-term acoustic telemetry and network analysis to determine the fine-scale behaviour and habitat use of sharks, skates and rays in various locations, from Plymouth UK to the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean. We also use accelerometers, respirometry and energetic modelling to estimate costs of movement and behaviour patterns. These data are used to explore the patterns and motivations underlying foraging, searching and social behaviours and to evaluate the efficacy of Marine Protected Areas.

Modelling Movement and Re-Distributions

One way of exploring why predators move and behave the way they do is to approximate empirical patterns with models with known dynamics. Over a series of projects the Sims Lab and collaborators have introduced superdiffusive models of movement into marine animal ecology. Ongoing projects in this area are focused on exploring how such movement patterns can arise from internal physiology and external environmental variations. Work in this fundamental area feeds into development of fish re-distribution models under climate change. Predictive models of marine fish movements and habitat use will underpin more accurate estimates of biotic responses to ocean warming.

Global Shark Tracking Project - Global Mapping of Pelagic Shark Space Use and Overlap with Fishing Vessels

Sharks are particularly susceptible to the effects of human exploitation because they have slow growth rates, a late age at maturity and low fecundity, traits which make them comparable to marine mammals in terms of vulnerability. Since fishing fleets expanded into the open ocean during the past...

Tracking Trans-Atlantic Movements, Habitat Preferences and Fisheries Overlap of the Shortfin Mako Shark

The shortfin mako shark Isurus oxyrinchus is an iconic species that is generally regarded as the fastest swimming shark reaching speeds over 30 mph. It is a warm-bodied, highly active shark with a circumglobal distribution in tropical and warm-temperate seas of all oceans. Shortfin...

SeaDNA - Assessing marine biodiversity and structure using environmental DNA: from groundtruthing to food web structure and stability

DNA evidence has revolutionised our understanding of the natural world. It has helped us to appreciate how species are related to one other, how environmental change can lead to species divergence and how individual populations become adapted through evolutionary processes to their local...

Humphries, N.E., Simpson, S.J., Sims, D.W. (2017) Diel vertical migration and central place foraging in benthic predators. Marine Ecology Progress Series 582, 163-180.

Queiroz, N., Vila-Pouca, C., Couto A., Southall, E.J., Mucientes, G., Humphries, N.E., Sims, D.W. (2017) Convergent foraging tactics of marine predators with different feeding strategies across heterogeneous ocean environments. Frontiers in Marine Science 4, 239.

Ramírez-Macías, D., Queiroz, N., Pierce, S.J., Humphries, N.E, Sims, D.W., Brunnschweiler, J.M. (2017) Ocean adults, coastal juveniles: Habitat use of whale sharks off the Pacific coast of Mexico. Peer J 5: e3271.

Hawkins, S.J., Evans, A.J., Adams, L.C., Bray, S., Burrows, M.T., Firth, L.B., Genner, M.J., Leung, K.M.Y., Mieszkowska, N., Moore, P.J., Pack, K., H. Schuster, Sims, D.W., Whittington, M., Southward, E.C. (2017) Distinguishing globally-driven changes from regional- and local-scale impacts: the case for long-term and broad-scale studies of recovery from pollution. Marine Pollution Bulletin 124, 573-586.

Nature Research Highlight - ‘Shark tracking shapes marine park’ (21 Jul 2016)

PNAS Commentary – “Subjective expectation of rewards can change the behavior of smart but impatient foragers” (vol. 113: 8571-72; 2016) by M da Luz et al.

Sydney Morning Herald – ‘Telltale signs: did you hear the one about the whale and the satellite?’ (9 Apr 16)

PNAS Highlight – ‘Overlap of sharks and fishing vessel ranges’ PNAS vol. 113, p. 1459 (9 Feb 2016)

The Times – ‘Sharks being wiped out by Sat-Nav’ by Ben Webster (26 Jan 2016)

The Australian – ‘Sharks face being wiped out by Sat-Nav’ (26 Jan 2016)

The Guardian‘Shark fin soup: a dangerous delicacy for humans and sharks alike’ (10 Mar 2016)

Discovery Channel News – ‘Shark ‘hotspots’ at risk from overfishing’ (25 Jan 2016)

National Geographic Saving sharks with satellites’ (7 April 2016)

Yahoo News – ‘Fishing Fleets are targeting sharks where they’re most vulnerable’ (25 Jan 2016)

Science News – ‘Study finds shark hotspots overlap with commercial fishing locations’ (25 Jan 2016)

Science Daily – ‘Shark hotspots overlap with commercial fishing locations’ (25 Jan 2016)

Nature World News – ‘Sharks could be overfished because fishing vessels share their hotspots’ (28 Jan 2016)

TakePart – ‘‘Fishing Fleets are targeting sharks where they’re most vulnerable’ by K. Gammon (25 Jan 2016)

NewsWise – ‘Shark hotspots ‘tracked’ by fishing vessels’ (25 Jan 2016)

Phys.Org – ‘Study finds shark hotspots overlap with commercial fishing locations’ (25 Jan 2016)

Technology.Org – ‘Shark hotspots ‘tracked’ by fishing vessels’ (26 Jan 2016)

Futurity – ‘Satellites find spots where sharks may be overfished’ (29 Jan 2016)

Western Morning News – ‘West Scientists’ study leads to shark protection call’ by M Freeman (25 Jan 2016)

Daily Echo – ‘Fishing quotas needed to protect sharks, say experts’ (26 Jan 2016)

Observer – ‘ Fishing quotas may be needed to protect sharks, satellite research reveals’ (26 Jan 2016)

BBC Radio Solent – interview for 6 o’clock news (28 Jan 2016)

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You can contact the Sims Lab here:

dws at mba dot ac dot uk