Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Fat Stingrays and Thinking Outside the Box

A little known fact about scientists is that they don’t always play nice with each other. Researchers in one field might disrespect or openly mock others in a field that they don’t view as up to snuff. Knight, and apparent wordsmith, Ernest Rutherford once famously said, “All science is either physics or stamp collecting.” Another gem comes from physicist Wolfgang Pauli who, after his wife left him for a chemically inclined colleague said, “Had she taken a bullfighter, I’d have understood. But a chemist!?” 

Clearly some scientists are witty jerks, but occasionally fields collide to produce some great and worth-while research. A perfect example comes from the work of Christina Semeniuk who, using her research as an excuse to visit the Cayman Islands (and who could blame her?), made it her mission to save a fever of stingrays (yes, a group of stingrays is called a fever) from the tourists who loved them too much.

Stingray City is a series of sandbars off the coast of Grand Cayman Island that is densely populated by marine life, including stingrays. The water is crystal clear, the sun is nearly always shining, and every year tourists jump at the chance to disembark from cruise ships and plunge into the water for a unique wildlife encounter. Anyone who has ever fed a stray cat can see the potential problem with this. The stingrays quickly pick up on the fact that if they tolerate being poked by a fat guy in a Hawaiian shirt for a few minutes, they get a free meal.

Dr. Semeniuk wanted to understand what kind of damage an influx of tourists could cause and use that information to come up with a solution. First, she used her natural science savvy to tackle the question of what effect the tourists were having on the rays. Her research revealed what you might expect: the rays were not only dangerously habituated to people, they were obese. Compared to a fever that had never seen a Hawaiian shirt, the Stingray City group was a pretty unhealthy lot. They even had an estimated death rate due to boat-collisions that was a little beyond what could be considered sensible.

So, what to do? A major problem with wildlife tourism is that, on the face of it, it is a lot better than exploiting nature. At least stingrays were not on the menu at the nearby resorts, right? Not necessarily. Unhealthy animals leads to an unhealthy ecosystem and, whether the cause is an oil spill or a Steve Irwin wannabe, an unhealthy ecosystem needs to be taken care of.

With that in mind, Dr. Semeniuk ventured into foreign territory for a marine biologist. She picked up her clipboard, wrote herself a survey, and tackled some social science. She asked the people who visited Stingray City if they would come back after an overhaul of the attraction’s rules. She presented them with different options and got them to select the ones they would visit. Some options had tonnes of rays, others not so many. In some scenarios they could touch and feed the rays, in others they watched from a distance.

She fed her data into a computer model that predicted each scenario’s impact both on the stingray population and the tourists’ willingness to continue visiting the attraction, and took her results to the people in charge. Since then, scientists and managers have been tweaking the rules governing tourists’ interactions with stingrays, to the benefit of the island’s economy AND its ecosystem.


The beauty of this research is that it contains a lesson we can all appreciate. Don’t be afraid to step out of your comfort zone. Go the extra mile. Learn everything you can. In the end, you will feel like a superstar and you can potentially make a lasting difference in the world. 

Special thanks to Dr. Christina Semeniuk for her co-operation in preparing this article! If you thought her research was as cool as we did, then check out her lab website here!