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Shark Week: Student research spotlight

Matthew Bernanke posing with a hammerhead shark he taggedResearch by a University of North Florida Shark Biology Lab student is helping scientists better understand local nursery sharks and what factors influence their ecosystem.  

While everyone is focusing on Shark Week, student Matthew Bernanke has been busy on the water all summer swimming and working directly with sharks. 

Bernanke and his team carefully and gently capture the small sharks, attach a tag containing a transmitter to their dorsal fins, take measurements of length, weight, etc. and then quickly release them back into the estuary.  

Bernanke, a biology graduate student researcher, is conducting a two-year study supported by a Fish Florida fellowship to better understand habitat use and movement patterns of local hammerhead sharks.  

Under the mentorship of Dr. Jim Gelsleichter, UNF Shark Biology Program director, Bernanke is investigating habitat use of young, scalloped hammerhead sharks in the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve (GTM Research Reserve).  

As sharks’ tags ping off the receivers, the UNF team and other scientists track them and compare their movements as they travel up and down the east coast. Bernanke and his team can also track the shark in real time from the boat, evaluating movement and habitat use as they relate to environmental conditions.  

Bernanke has deployed 23of the 30 tags he has to put on local sharks and plans to finish tagging by the end of the summer. The data collected from the tags will help the scientists understand environmental or other factors influencing sharks’ use of the nursery system. 

For his work, Bernanke recently won “Best Student Poster” at the annual meeting of the Florida Chapter of the American Fishery Society and has presented at the North Florida Marine Science Symposium and the GTM Research Reserve State of the Reserve meeting. He also has been awarded multiple graduate research awards and scholarships. 

Bernanke previously served as an intern/volunteer at the Mote Marine Lab, Havenworth Coastal Conservation and NOAA’s Southeast Fisheries Science Center Shark Population Assessment Group, and worked as a research assistant and intern at the Savannah State University Dolphin Sciences Lab.