Stony Brook University Office of Research Services
Tag: New Zealand

Scientists Can Track Origin of Shark Fins Using ‘Zip Codes’ In Their DNA

Studies show that coastal sharks have ‘DNA zip codes’ that can reveal where they were born; underscores potential of DNA testing to monitor fin trade

An international team of scientists, led by the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University,  has used DNA to determine that groups of dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus) and copper sharks (Carcharhinus brachyurus) living in different coastal regions across the globe are separate populations of each species. Both are large apex predators that are heavily exploited for the shark fin trade, which claims tens of millions of animals every year to produce the Asian delicacy, shark fin soup. Many of these species are declining as a result of this fishing pressure for their fins.

The dusky shark is classified as “Endangered” in the Western Atlantic by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as its population is below 20 percent of what it was two decades ago. These new studies show that the genetic differences among populations of these sharks are large enough for scientists to be able to track the actual origin of the fins on sale in Asian markets, enabling better regional monitoring and management of these threatened predators.

These research findings appear in two scientific articles. “Global phylogeography of the dusky shark, Carcharhinus obscurus: implications for fisheries management and monitoring the shark fin trade,” has been published online in the journal Endangered Species Research. “Phylogeography of the copper shark (Carcharhinus brachyurus) in the southern hemisphere: implications for the conservation of a coastal apex predator” will soon be published in the journal Marine and Freshwater Research. The primary objective of these studies was to identify any genetic differences among regional groups of dusky and copper sharks and establish how many distinct populations there are. The second objective was to determine if these population differences were great enough to allow scientists to reconstruct their contributions to fin trade in the future. Like many large sharks, these species have a wide distribution around the globe but are tied to coastal areas for reproduction.

“By analyzing part of the genome that is inherited solely through the mother, we were able to detect differences between sharks living along different  continents – in effect, their DNA zip codes,” said Dr. Demian Chapman, leader of the research team and assistant director of science of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science. “This research shows that adult females faithfully give birth along the continental region where they were born. If fished too much, the population will collapse, and it is extremely unlikely that it will be replenished from immigration of sharks from another region.”

This is precisely what has happened along the U.S. Eastern Seaboard, where the once common dusky shark is now rare and a species of concern for listing under the Endangered Species Act. At one time, these animals were common in ocean waters off the United States; however, a recent stock assessment of the sharks along the U.S. East Coast and in the Gulf of Mexico showed an 80 percent decline even though they have been protected since 2000. The recovery of the species is extremely slow because the average age of maturity is 20 years, its reproductive cycle only occurs every three years – including a two-year pregnancy – and its litter size is relatively small (three to 14 offspring).

“Here in the United States, it took only a few decades to nearly wipe out our dusky sharks, and it will probably take a few centuries for their stocks to be replenished,” said Martin Benavides, lead author of both studies and research assistant at the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science. “Our results dash any hopes that dusky sharks from other areas of the world will replenish the depleted U.S. stock. The sight of a dusky shark swimming off our shores will be a rare experience for generations to come.”

“We know very little about the shark fin trade, but by using DNA-zip coding we can identify source populations that are contributing most to the trade, and prioritize them for management,” added Dr. Chapman. “We, therefore, really need to establish sampling programs of fins on their way to Asia or in the markets to regulate the global trade before many more populations suffer the fate of the dusky shark in the United States.”

For years, it was difficult to determine the origin of these fins and whether they were from threatened species. A study by Dr. Chapman, which was published in 2009, Chapman(1) used DNA testing to trace scalloped hammerhead shark fins from the Hong Kong market all the way back to the sharks’ geographic origin and found many came from collapsed Western Atlantic populations. These new research results demonstrate that this type of testing also can be used to trace the origins of the fins of dusky and copper sharks.

“As apex predators at the top of marine food webs, it is essential for ocean health that we take steps, such as monitoring and regulating the fin trade, to protect these large sharks,” said Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

Both research projects were conducted by a collaborative international team of scientists from the United States, Australia, South America, Asia, New Zealand and southern Africa. The scientists collectively analyzed part of the mitochondrial DNA in nearly 400 sharks sampled from all over the globe.

This research was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts through a grant to the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University. Sequence data were collected in the Field Museum’s Pritzker Laboratory for Molecular Systematics and Evolution, operated with support from the Pritzker Foundation. Additional sequence data were collected at the Guy Harvey Research Institute with operational funds and a grant from the Save Our Seas Foundation. Funding was also provided by the Turner Fellowship Program and the Tinker Foundation.


For more information on “Global phylogeography of the dusky shark, Carcharhinus obscurus: implications for fisheries management and monitoring the shark fin trade,” visit:

For more information on “Phylogeography of the copper shark (Carcharhinus brachyurus) in the southern hemisphere: implications for the conservation of a coastal apex predator,” visit:

The Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University is dedicated to advancing ocean conservation through science. The Institute transforms real-world policy while pursuing serious science, both of which are essential for ocean health.  For more information, go to

(1)  Chapman DD, Pinhal D, Shivji MS (2009); “Tracking the fin trade: genetic stock identification in Western Atlantic scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini),” Endangered Species Research.

Dear Colleague Letter for New Zealand and Japan – Rapid Response Grants – NSF 11-045

Dear Colleagues:

The February 21, 2011, earthquake in New Zealand and the March 11, 2011, earthquake in Japan and subsequent tsunami and nuclear power plant crises have shown us Nature’s enormous destructive capacity, once again. This letter is to remind you that NSF has mechanisms in place to respond to immediate research and education needs that arise from such unexpected events.  

For example, such mechanisms were used to support activities compelled by the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in 2010, the Chinese Wenchun earthquake in 2008, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

The Rapid Response Research (RAPID) mechanism is used to support activities having a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to, data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.

Another mechanism is for a Principal Investigator (PI) to request supplemental funds to add an international dimension to an existing NSF grant. Supported activities are not limited to on-site research, and could include research conducted remotely via the use of information and communication technologies, temporarily hosting databases on behalf of affected institutions, and providing temporary laboratory space for researchers and students from affected institutions.

Individual NSF directorates and offices may provide specific guidance.  General guidelines for RAPID and supplement requests are described in the Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide (NSF 11-001) at and, respectively.  PI(s) must contact the NSF program officer(s) whose program is most germane to the proposal topic before submitting a RAPID proposal or supplement request. PI(s) are also encouraged to contact the appropriate country contact in the NSF Office of International Science and Engineering (see

Submitted proposals should address access to expertise, facilities, and resources at the New Zealand or Japanese sites. Whenever feasible or applicable, the proposal should demonstrate true collaboration with host country counterparts.

Given the scale of physical damage, areas in New Zealand and Japan may not be accessible to foreign investigators in the near term.  Proposals should include detailed research plans that incorporate specific details about country entry, if required, and logistics for data collection.  

Grantees are responsible for obtaining required visas for foreign travel and research permits and clearances.  Awardees are expected to adhere to U.S. State Department guidance regarding travel and stay in New Zealand and Japan:

For RAPID proposals, the budget should include travel costs for one trip to the Arlington, Virginia area to present results of the RAPID research at a workshop open to the public.  The workshop is anticipated to be held within a year.

The number of projects supported by NSF will depend on the quality of the proposals received and the availability of funds. While not a deadline, for timely consideration, submission of RAPID proposals electronically via the NSF FastLane system or and supplement requests electronically via the NSF FastLane system by Friday, April 15, 2011, is encouraged.

NSF looks forward to continuing to work with the research community on responses to these devastating events.


Subra Suresh

Traveling Internationally? RF’s got you covered…

February’s earthquake in New Zealand reminds us that travel “alerts” can happen anytime, anywhere.  In order to assist you should an emergency arise, the RF has established foreign/international travel policies to respond to complex and ever-changing travel regulations and situations.

With that in mind, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you travel internationally:

  • Travelers going to any country indicated by the U.S. Department of State with a travel warning must have advance written approval from the campus operations manager (Dr. Marburger) and campus president (contact Carol Londoiro) with written notice to the RF’s central office (, before traveling.
  • It is the responsibility of the traveler to check the Current Travel Warnings list before traveling, to obtain the necessary authorization, and to read and abide by the information contained in the travel warning. Travelers should also read the Department of State’s “Tips for Traveling Abroad.”
  • International Travel Assistance

The RF’s board of directors authorized the RF to provide international travel assistance coverage (see below) for all persons traveling overseas on official RF business.

International SOS Assistance, Inc.

The Research Foundation contracts with International SOS® Assistance, Inc. to administer Worldwide Emergency Assistance Services, including Global Security Services. Travel assistance benefits include a 24-hour/day-365 day/year call center where a traveler can obtain and/or access:

  • emergency and routine medical advice
  • medical and prescription medication referrals
  • medical evacuation
  • lost document assistance
  • legal referrals
  • contact information for embassies
  • emergency messages to family members
  • emergency telephone translation service
  • security analysis of risk conditions throughout the world
  • an international network of crisis centers
  • an experienced crisis management team
  • emergency evacuation

 CIGNA’s Medical Benefits Abroad (MBA)

Provides upfront payment guarantees to hospitals and physicians worldwide for non-routine medical care for SUNY or RF employees and their eligible dependents traveling on RF business for periods of fewer than 90 consecutive days. MBA also provides direct payments and guarantees of payments to physicians, laboratories, clinics, and urgent care centers, and provides recommendations to facilities of all types. Travelers and their dependents should have comprehensive health insurance in place before leaving the country, since this program does not cover routine care. A project may purchase optional medical insurance from International SOS Assistance, Inc. on a per-trip basis if needed for staff whose U.S. comprehensive health insurance does not provide out-of-network coverage. The cost of such optional health insurance will be a direct charge to the project.

CIGNA’s Global Health Advantage (GHA)

Provides upfront payment guarantees to hospitals and physicians worldwide, and covers RF employee expatriates who are outside the U.S. for more than 90 consecutive days or for a total of 180 or more days during a twelve-month period. This is a comprehensive medical plan complete with routine medical coverage for RF employee expatriates and their dependents (even if their dependents are in a different country). Most services are covered at 90%.

For more information log in to the RF Foreign Travel Policy on the RF Website at

Questions?  Contact Kathy Green at 632-7932 or via email: