Deep Dive in 5: Dave Ebert Lives Every Week Like It’s Shark Week

by | Jul 8, 2024 | Academics, Featured, Research and Innovation

Dave Ebert with a frilled shark in Suruga Bay, Japan. Photo courtesy of Dave Ebert.

 As you may or may not know, an important holiday is almost upon us. No, not the  Fourth of July, and not Bastille Day, either. It’s Shark Week, a week-long celebration of all things shark, running from July 7-13. As the immortal Tracy Morgan advises in an episode of 30 Rock, “Live every week like it’s Shark Week.”

And we intend to, starting with this week’s Deep Dive in 5, where we spoke with Dave Ebert, ’84 MS Marine Biology, program director of the Pacific Shark Research Center and research faculty at SJSU’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, who in addition to being a shark expert has discovered and named 53 new species of sharks, with more potentially on the way. Since Shark Week is a full seven days, this Deep Dive in 5 contains seven questions. 

Ebert, who travels the world to help discover new species of sharks — especially the “lost” and “ghost” varieties — is as enthusiastic about sharks now as he was when he first discovered them as a little boy. And yes, he has actually participated in Shark Week. We spoke with him about shark discovery, his many adventures and the misconceptions people have about sharks.

How did you first become interested in sharks and how did that lead you to San José State?

Dave Ebert (DE): When I was about five years old, my parents gave me a book on sharks, and like a lot of five-year-old kids, I thought they were the coolest things I’d ever seen.

Typically, kids eventually grow out of the sharks and dinosaurs phase. But I never grew out of it. In fact, I got more interested. When I was about ten, I realized I wanted to figure out a way to travel the world studying sharks and get paid to do it. I had no idea how, but my entire goal was to study sharks.

There really wasn’t a huge amount of shark research until the movie “Jaws” came out. People talk about a lot of the negative aspects with “Jaws,” but before “Jaws,” shark attack research was really the only sort of shark research. And after “Jaws,” a lot of people started asking questions. How many species of sharks are there? How many young do they have? Where do they go?

Because of this, a lot of opportunities started to come up. I was fortunate enough to catch the wave of this young “Jaws” generation of students. When I finished my bachelor’s at [California State University) Humboldt [now Cal Poly Humboldt], I was looking around for a place to go pursue a master’s, and it turned out Moss Landing Marine Laboratories had a burgeoning shark program under Dr. Greg Cailliet. That’s what led me to Moss Landing — I enrolled through San José State for my master’s.

I ended up working on my Ph.D. in South Africa. For about ten years I worked in aquaculture. I kept my focus on sharks to find an opportunity. And in 2002, Greg Cailliet hired me to start a new program with him, which became known as the Pacific Shark Research Center. 

That was over 20 years ago now; Greg’s long retired, enjoying himself, and I’m still here, running things and loving every minute of it. Eventually my dream came true. I was able to travel around the world, and I’ve been to over 35 or 40 countries, getting paid to study sharks. It’s great.

Dave Ebert and some of the many sharks he’s encountered over the years. Photos courtesy of Dave Ebert.

You’re known for discovering new species of sharks. What is that process like and how do you find them?

DE: I’ll go to an area and I’ll work with local fisheries, biologists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and together we’ll visit different places. We often survey the fish markets, because I have the expertise to help identify fish and other things the fishermen catch.

That’s what leads to discoveries. If you set out saying, “I’m going to go find a new species,” you’ll never find anything. But if you go to look and document what you find, you may discover something new.

It helps that I’ve been around for a while and have a network of people. For the most recent discovery, Chimaera supapae, a colleague of mine collected this thing in the Andaman Sea off Thailand and he wasn’t sure what it was. So, he contacted me and we did some genetic and morphological studies and we realized this was a new species.

In that case it wasn’t quite as adventurous as being actually on the boat and catching a new species. But I do have those experiences, too. Probably one of the best ones I had was in Sri Lanka a few years ago. There was a shark I’d seen some photographs of and I couldn’t figure out what it was. My colleagues and I were surveying in Sri Lanka and I said, “Let’s go check out this one area” which turned out to be Muttur in Trincomalee Harbour. And so we went and I got to talking to the fishermen, and I showed them a picture of the shark and asked if they’d seen it.

And they nodded and said, “Yeah, come back tomorrow.” I came back the next day and they had one. I couldn’t believe it. I asked, “How often do you catch these?” And one fisherman said, “Oh, we had three yesterday. We throw them back. You’re the first person that’s ever come along that had any interest.”

That was a whole new species to science that they were catching and throwing back: the Eastern Dwarf False Catshark. And if I hadn’t gotten that picture from a friend of mine and gone to that place to ask about it, it’d still be an unknown species. 

That was a eureka moment — right then and there I knew that was a new species. But a lot of times, because we’re scientists, we tend to be a little more reserved. We think, “Well, let’s go back to the laboratory and take some measurements and see what happens.”

I also have another 20-30 sharks currently in my lab that I’m researching right now that may be new species. 

Many of the sharks you’ve discovered are chimaeras, or ghost sharks. What are those?

DE: Chimaeras are probably the oldest lineages related to sharks. They go back about 400 to 450 million years. They branched off from the main shark lineage probably a couple hundred million years ago. About 100 million years ago, they were far more numerous. Now there are only about 55 or 60 species. Sharks and rays (mostly) have five to six or seven paired gill slits and chimaeras have one. And I always joke that the chimaeras look like a shark built by a committee. 

They look weird, but they’re kind of cute to watch swim around. My lab at MLML has named about a dozen new chimaera species, which represents about 20% of all known species. In fact, one of my former master’s students at MLML, Dr Jenny Kemper, has become quite an international expert on the group, and she and I are now co-authoring a book on the “Ghost Sharks of the World” to be published by Princeton University Press in 2025.

How do you name the sharks you discover?

DE: It varies. Sometimes you could name it after a region. A few years ago I named an entirely new genus of skates Caliraja. Raja means skate. And Cali was for California and Baja California, because this entire group of skates is mostly only known for being from California and Baja. So that was kind of a play on a regional thing.

Sometimes you might name it after someone or in honor of somebody, or after a characteristic of the species. It depends on how clever you want to be.

That ghost shark that I just named a few months ago that caught my eye in Thailand was named Chimaera supapae because my Thai colleague wanted to name it after a late mentor professor of his, whose full name was Professor Supap Monkolprasit (1934-2013). She was on the faculty of fisheries, Kasetsart University, Thailand.

Do you have a favorite shark that you’ve discovered? 

Dave Ebert with others looking at a shark on the beach.

Dave Ebert and others examine a shark on the beach. Photo courtesy of Dave Ebert.

DE: I’d have to go with the Southern African frilled shark. I discovered it during my Ph.D., and we caught it at sea. There’s a species called a frilled shark that was universally known and discovered in 1885. It was thought to be the only species in this entire family of sharks.

And in the late ‘80s, I was at sea off Namibia, off a town called Lüderitz, and we caught this frilled shark. And I thought, “Man, this thing looks like a different species of shark.” One thing led to another, and I figured out that it was a distinctly new species. And so I named it.

At the time, nobody had any idea that there was more than one species in this entire family of sharks, and I discovered a second one. It was such a wild thing to discover that it has a special place in my heart.

Beyond scientific discovery, what do you see as the importance of your work? 

DE: What I do is like building a foundation for a house. You have to lay the foundation first in order to understand your environment, and knowing what species you have [in your area] enables the local governments and NGOs to develop and improve conservation and fishery management policy. Now we know what we have here and they can use that to develop their national plans of action for sharks.

A lot of the countries I visit are developing countries without a lot of infrastructure. If the fishermen don’t go out and catch fish, they don’t eat. So I’m very sensitive about that. I find a lot of really interesting, new sharks. But I’m not there to tell people what to do. I’m just providing information. I’ll let the in-country NGOs know what I find, and the local fisheries. It’s all about trying to have sustainable resources.

In the end, it’s really rewarding and fulfilling to me to be able to go out and provide my expertise in a lot of these countries and hope that I’ve done some good there.

What do you wish people knew about sharks? What misconceptions would you like to correct?

Dave Ebert on the beach with a shark. Photo courtesy of Dave Ebert.

Dave Ebert on the beach with a shark. Photo courtesy of Dave Ebert.

DE: I think people don’t realize the diversity of sharks out there. And when I say sharks, that includes the rays and the chimaeras. There are around 1300 species out there and many of these species are just vanishing before our eyes.

Nobody’s paying any attention to them because everybody studies white sharks or tiger sharks or manta rays. And so we’re losing this entire fauna out there, globally. I try to encourage young people: if you’re interested in the field, pursue some of the species that nobody knows about because they’re vanishing with almost no recognition at all due to overfishing and habitat degradation.

Also, people are not on the menu with sharks. Yes, there are shark attacks. But you know, if you go out in the woods, you might have a bear incident or a mountain lion incident, but it’s not like they’re out there hunting people, and it’s the same with sharks.

I think the big thing people should know is if you’re out at the beach and you happen to see a shark, enjoy the moment. If it’s a larger shark, maybe get out of the water carefully without splashing too much, but enjoy it. I always laugh because if you go out to look for sharks, you’ll never find them. It’s when you’re not looking for them that you’ll see them. But just enjoy them. They’re magnificent.

Keep up with Dave’s adventures with the Pacific Shark Research Center.