David Shiffman is a shark guy. It’s in his Twitter handle, he’s writing a book about it, and he was wearing a shark shirt the day we interviewed him. But more broadly he’s a marine conservation biologist, meaning he studies all sorts of ocean-going animals. We talked with David about fighting science misinformation, expanding what the field of science looks like, some painful (literally) field experiences, and why sharks matter.
Shane: 00:00 Hi, Nancy.
Nancy: 00:01 Hi Shane.
Shane: 00:02 Today I want to ask you, what animal are you most afraid of?
Nancy: 00:08 Animal I’m most afraid of?
Shane: 00:09 Animal.
Nancy: 00:11 Maybe squirrels. I just hate them.
Shane: 00:18 Do you run away? I don’t know if squirrels run towards you, but would you run away from them?
Nancy: 00:24 I wouldn’t run towards them. I wouldn’t interact with them like some of my neighbors do. I don’t really understand that. They feed them and interact with them. To me they’re just disgusting.
Shane: 00:32 It’s like a mixture of …
Nancy: 00:34 Disgust.
Shane: 00:34 … disgust, fear, hate type thing.
Nancy: 00:37 Yeah, I think so. I think so.
Shane: 00:38 Okay. For me, I guess for me, it’s a little bit more traditional in fear. It’s a cassowary. Do you know what a cassowary is?
Nancy: 00:45 I don’t know what that is.
Shane: 00:46 Okay. Google it, or actually, since we are in person, which is really fun, have you ever seen that before? Folks on a thing can’t see it. They can Google it.
Nancy: 00:54 No.
Shane: 00:55 Okay. It is, no, that’s fine.
Nancy: 00:58 It’s a big bird with a weird, how big is?
Shane: 01:01 It’s well, oh, good question, probably like four feet. It’s terrifying. It’s like a cross between an emu and a velociraptor. It has even the really creepy, terrifying claws. If you can picture, have you seen Jurassic Park, the original one?
Nancy: 01:15 Yeah.
Shane: 01:15 In the beginning, Dr. Grant finds the claw and he is scratching the child, the annoying child with it. They have that claw, absolutely terrifying cassowary.
Nancy: 01:26 They’ll come after you with that claw.
Shane: 01:27 Well, okay. This is a thing. Yes, but they’re not in the states. They’re native to Australia, but they do have one or two at the National Zoo, and I used to volunteer there. One of the things I heard from all the keepers that if a cassowary gets out, that is the worst thing at the zoo. Lion’s bad, cheetah’s not great. If a cassowary gets out, you better run.
Nancy: 01:54 Why?
Shane: 01:55 They are deadly …
Nancy: 01:57 Really? Oh.
Shane: 01:57 … and terrifying. Ba-ba-ba-bum. Science is fascinating, but don’t just take my word for it. Join us as we hear stories from scientists or everyone. I’m Shane Hanlon …
Nancy: 02:18 And I’m Nanci Bompey.
Shane: 02:18 … and this is Third Pod from the Sun. All right. We’re talking biggest animal fears, dispel some misconceptions specifically about sharks, a group of animals that folks are terrified of for largely unjustified reasons. What do you think of sharks?
Nancy: 02:36 Sharks are cool.
Shane: 02:37 Not like rationally terrified of them. Do you go to the beach?
Nancy: 02:41 I don’t like really have a, I have never had an encounter or been scared of them, but I mean, Jaws, that’s scary.
Shane: 02:47 Yeah. Yeah. Actually I just watched Jaws the other day randomly. Yeah, I can’t imagine, I personally can’t imagine being stoked if I saw a fin while I was at the beach, but I’m not irrationally terrified of them either, but luckily folks don’t have to listen to us talk about sharks. Today, we do have a real shark expert who can dissuade us of all of, or at least some of our misconceptions. Our interviewer was Ashley Hammer.
Dr. David Shiff…: 03:16 I am Dr. David Schiffman. I am a marine conservation biologist. That means I study animals that live in the ocean and how to better understand, conserve, and protect them, and I’m a faculty research associate at Arizona State University. I’ve been interested in sharks as long as my family can remember. I feel like most kids go through a shark thing or a dinosaur thing, and I actually had both of those. I decided I would rather spend my days on a boat where it’s nice and warm than in the deserts of Montana digging up bones. I decided I’d rather use my time and energy trying to understand the world as it is and how to stop animals from going extinct than trying to understand the world as it was and what caused animals to go extinct and what the effects of that were.
Dr. David Shiff…: 04:02 There’s always these conversations about how there were sharks long before there were dinosaurs. There were, in fact, sharks swimming in the ocean before there were trees on land. There were sharks swimming in the ocean before Saturn had rings, so this is a really ancient group of animals.
Ashley Hammer: 04:17 Then as far as being inspired, are there things that you wish you had seen for inspiration maybe that exist now or that you’re trying to make exist when you were getting started?
Dr. David Shiff…: 04:28 Yeah, for me, there’s never really been an issue with that. As a white guy, there have been plenty of examples I can look to in the field and in popular media of people who look like me doing what I want to do. I want to highlight the incredible work of a new organization called Minorities and Shark Sciences that has been doing a lot to change the perception that marine biology and shark science is just for white guys. They have over 300 members now from all over the world who are early career women of color interested in the field. They’ve done some amazing work. I wish that something like that had been around for a long time, but I’m glad it’s here now.
Ashley Hammer: 05:10 What is special about studying sharks for you then? What are you bringing to the world in studying these animals?
Dr. David Shiff…: 05:17 Predators are always important at keeping the food chain in balance. Where I’m from in Pittsburgh, we used to have wolves, and we killed all the wolves because who wants wolves in your backyard? Wolves are scary. Now there’s too many deer, and the deer spread Lyme disease, and the deer cause billions of dollars in property damage, and deer are sick because there’s not enough food for all of them. That’s the food chain destabilizing. We do not want the ocean food chain to destabilize. That is a food chain that billions of humans, including the poorest, many of the poorest people in the world depend on for livelihoods and food security. We want healthy food chains, and that starts with protecting the top of the food chain just to keep things from unraveling.
Ashley Hammer: 05:57 It also seems like there’s a perception problem with sharks. Is that right?
Dr. David Shiff…: 06:01 There is. Yeah, the subtitle of my book is A Deep Dive with the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator. When I give my public talks, I do not have to start with, this is what a shark is because everyone knows what a shark is, but a lot of what they know is wrong. That’s a very different problem than my, I have a friend who studies tetrapods, the sea butterflies, the marine invertebrates who are threatened by ocean acidification. They start their talk with, this is what a tetrapod is because lots of people don’t know what a tetrapod is. I don’t have to do that. But in some ways my job is harder because I have to first make people unlearn things before I can help them to learn things. There’s huge public perception problems with sharks. A lot of what I’ve been studying recently is public knowledge attitudes and practices with respect to sharks from a variety of stakeholder groups.
Ashley Hammer: 06:52 Is it getting better?
Dr. David Shiff…: 06:54 It depends on how you measure it. Right after Jaws came out in the 1970s, there were just organized campaigns to kill all the sharks anyone could find. We’re largely not doing that anymore, but since then commercial fisheries have exploded, and the number of threatened species of sharks has exploded in my lifetime. That happens largely not because people hate sharks and want them to die, but because they don’t necessarily know it’s happening and they don’t understand the impacts of their food choices and the other choices they make.
Ashley Hammer: 07:33 What are some of your least favorite misperceptions out there about sharks?
Dr. David Shiff…: 07:39 I mean, the classic one is that the only good shark is a dead shark, and sharks are blood thirsty killers, and if you dip your toe in a bathtub, a shark’s going to eat your whole family. That’s not true, and we’ve known that’s not true forever, but the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Recently is now you have scuba divers who are saying that sharks are cute, adorable, innocent puppy dogs, and they just need love and hugs and kisses. People do hug and kiss wild free swimming sharks. Don’t do that. These are not the only two options here. If you were hiking and you saw a bear, you wouldn’t try to ride it, but people do it with sharks all the time. Then other people say they’re heroes and it’s nonsense.
Ashley Hammer: 08:19 Right. Got it. Just treat them with respect.
Dr. David Shiff…: 08:23 Yeah. It’s a wild animal.
Ashley Hammer: 08:25 As far as your experience with sharks, do you have any memorable or funny experiences from the field?
Dr. David Shiff…: 08:33 Yeah. I have had a lot of really fun experiences with sharks in the field. My favorite thing is my PhD lab at the University of Miami. Every trip we brought a high school or middle school science class out with us. For me, if it was, oh God, a nurse shark, the 300th nurse shark I’ve seen this month, for some kid on the boat, it’s the first shark they’ve ever seen in their life, so it was really cool to pick up on that. Every once in a while funny stuff happens. People think of nurse sharks as being, especially people who’ve been snorkeling or scuba diving in Florida, think of nurse sharks as being the couch potatoes of the sea. They don’t really move that much. They’re one of the few species that doesn’t need to swim constantly to breathe.
Dr. David Shiff…: 09:15 If you bother them, and scientists, were doing what we do for important reasons following ethical guidelines, but it’s bothering them. They get very feisty. It can take four or five undergraduate interns to secure a big nurse shark. I had one intern who was responsible for securing the tail while I did a workup. She let go of the tail, and I heard like an Indiana Jones whip crack noise. The next thing I knew, my butt hurt so bad and I could not sit for three days. I had to lie on my stomach in the backseat as someone drove my car home from the boat that day. Still, when I see a nurse shark flinch a certain way, I get phantom tingling butt pain, or when I hear that whip crack noise.
Ashley Hammer: 10:08 How do you manage work life balance?
Dr. David Shiff…: 10:11 Not, well, I would say. I’m working five part-time jobs right now. It works out that it’s only about 45 hours a week of actual work, and some of that is flexible when in the week I can do it, but I have a problem with work life balance. I would hold myself up as an example of some things for the youths to look into, but not work life balance.
Ashley Hammer: 10:32 I mean, it sounds like this is really your life’s passion though …
Dr. David Shiff…: 10:35 Yes.
Ashley Hammer: 10:35 … so it probably isn’t too bad.
Dr. David Shiff…: 10:37 I love it. It’s a lot sometimes. The problem with conservation biology, especially living in the Anthropocene, or the sixth mass extinction, or whatever you want to call it, is an exciting result, is usually bad news and that can be a lot. Right? When you make a discovery, it is very rarely happy news.
Ashley Hammer: 11:02 Are there things that make you feel better about conservation in the future of the planet?
Dr. David Shiff…: 11:08 Yeah. I mean, people care about this more now than 20 years ago. There’s more serious political momentum towards this than ever before. We are not going to do enough to stop to fix everything, but there are enough people who are really trying their hardest, and that gives me a lot of hope. My students give me a lot of hope. They have just boundless energy that I don’t remember ever being that energetic, but they’re very passionate, and they’re very bright, and they want to help. Many of them are going to go on and do great things. There’s a lot of discussions happening in DC policy world right now about the Biden administration’s focus on offshore wind, which is going to be huge for climate change, but may have some impacts on marine systems. They’re trying to balance those goals.
Dr. David Shiff…: 11:53 North Atlantic Mako sharks, we got a big success last fall with those. That’s been what everyone’s been talking about for the last two or three years. These animals are severely over fished and even endangered. The US and Europe are still fishing for them, and we need to stop doing that. They agreed on a temporary, I believe, five-year suspension of fishing for them. It needs to be a lot more than that, but that’s a huge starting point. There’s great things happening at NOAA. There’s great things happening. There’s a lot to be optimistic about right now.
Shane: 12:32 I love a happy ending.
Nancy: 12:34 I mean, is it actually happy?
Shane: 12:37 Sure. Okay. There’s still a lot of work to do, but I’m happy there are folks out there like David doing the work. I want to thank him for chatting with us. That’s it. This is our first episode and our new weekly format.
Nancy: 12:51 Special thanks to Ashley Hammer for conducting the interview, NASA for sponsoring the series, and to Karen Romano Young for her amazing illustration of David.
Shane: 13:01 This episode was produced by me with audio engineering from Collin Warren.
Nancy: 13:05 You would love to hear your thoughts. Please rate and review this podcast. You can find new episodes in your favorite podcasting app or at thirdpodcastfromthesun.com.
Shane: 13:13 Thanks all, and we’ll see you next week. Okay. That’s thing one. That’s your first episode, Nancy. Good job.
Nancy: 13:26 Good job.
Shane: 13:27 You did so well.
Nancy: 13:29 I’m earning my keep.