More shark-a-track than shark attack

Thu, Oct 25, 2012, 01:00

SMALL PRINT:IT’S A slightly disquieting thought that sharks swim in the waters close to Ireland. But the species that live near us are harmless, according to Dr Edward Farrell, a researcher with the Marine Institute.

He’s part of a project that is finding out more about where one particular type of shark hangs out, and is offering the public the chance to track individual animals as they roam.

The porbeagle (Lamna nasus), which is critically endangered in the northeast Atlantic, generally eats other fish. “Porbeagle sharks are one of the largest predatory sharks in Irish waters,” says Dr Farrell. “But they’re a really timid shark species.” With colleagues Dr Maurice Clarke and Dr Ryan Saunders, he has been tagging and tracking individual porbeagles to help understand their ecology. They have already recorded one male that migrated from Ireland to Madeira.

Now five more porbeagles found off the Donegal coast are wearing tags that will record and store their location and depth over the course of nine months. Each tag will then detach, float to the surface, and beam the information to a satellite and the waiting researchers.

But we won’t have to hang around as long for information on two of the animals, because they are wearing additional tags on their dorsal fins, says Farrell. “Each time the fin breaks the water’s surface, its location is transmitted to an orbiting satellite. This will let us track the sharks in near-real time, and we believe this is the first time these tags have ever been fitted on porbeagles,” he says.

“The tags should function for at least the next year and we will get a completely new insight into the behaviour of these sharks.”

You can catch up with where the tagged sharks are by using the porbeagle tracker at

Curiosity goes for a scoop on Mars

The Mars rover Curiosity has been busy collecting dirt from the red planet. Last week, the robotic explorer scooped up a small amount of surface material from a sandy area of Mars known as Rocknest for analysis.

It’s a big milestone for the rover’s two-year mission, and its onboard instruments can now set about examining the Martian samples to see what they contain.

Curiosity landed on Mars in early August and has been sending updates and images to its Earthbound followers on Twitter (@MarsCuriosity).

The wheeled rover stopped off at Rocknest to collect some samples from the sandy surface, but those initial scoops were used to scrub the collection apparatus to make sure it wasn’t contaminated by material from Earth.

Now that the housekeeping is done, the rover can collect samples for analysis. One of the onboard machines, the Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instrument, is looking at a sieved sample of surface material to see what minerals it contains.

“We are crossing a significant threshold for this mission by using CheMin on its first sample,” said Curiosity’s project scientist, John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, on the US space agency’s website. “This instrument gives us a more definitive mineral-identifying method than ever before used on Mars: X-ray diffraction. Confidently identifying minerals is important because minerals record the environmental conditions under which they form.”

Earlier this month, scientists were puzzled by what appeared to be light-coloured flecks in the soil that Curiosity was sampling. Was it debris from the spacecraft? No, the thinking now is that the bright particles are native Martian material, according to NASA.

“The native Mars particles become fodder for the mission’s scientific studies,” said Curiosity project manager Richard Cook of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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