Our work in the Shark Bay, Australia, ecosystem is all about preserving and safeguarding the unique environment. We ensure that the animals using Shark Bay as their stronghold are protected from natural and man-made threats.

Institute scientists have been studying this ecosystem for over 20 years. We have been monitoring the species that live in the area, exploring their behaviors and providing solutions to respond to the threats that Shark Bay faces.

Protecting a Unique Ecosystem

Shark Bay, Australia, is a unique environment that is home to some of the world's most threatened species. Creatures like the dugong, southern right whales and bottlenose dolphins have made this area their home or migratory pitstop. Unfortunately, Shark Bay is threatened by climate change, including marine heat waves and intensifying storms. 

Since 1997, our scientists have been studying Shark Bay and the animals that call it home. We spearhead an international team of researchers who are looking at the impacts that threats like climate change have had on one of the world's most pristine seagrass ecosystems. Our scientists' work in Shark Bay provides the most detailed study of the ecological role of sharks in the world, and it has been used to drive positive policy changes in shark conservation.

We study the sharks that gave Shark Bay its name, but we also study the other creatures and organisms that rely on the ecosystem to survive. As one of the last largest seagrass ecosystems virtually untouched by mankind, Shark Bay is an ideal area for scientists to study. By gathering information in Shark Bay, our researchers can then provide recommendations for how to protect and restore other threatened marine environments.

Ongoing Research

  • Sharks and Ecosystem Recovery

    Our scientists have been studying the region's sharks for over two decades. The importance of sharks for the survival of the ecosystem has been made abundantly clear.

    Recently, in a unique experiment, a team of our scientists tested whether an ecosystem could recover if sharks were no longer there to keep other animals in check. By studying the presence of sharks in the area, our scientists were able to determine that these predators are critical in helping ecosystems recover when devastation hits from hurricanes or marine heatwaves.

    The idea is simple: Grazing animals, including turtles and dugongs, eat seagrass. Sharks eat the grazers. Grazers fear the sharks. So, when sharks are around, the grazers often avoid the area. While the grazers are away, the aquatic plants have time to grow and recover. 

    Learn more about this research in FIU News or explore our Shark Bay Ecosystem Research Project.

  • Community Dynamics

    Our researchers are studying the reason why so many species, from sharks and dolphins to dugongs and sea turtles, choose to live in Shark Bay.

    One of our main areas of research include asking what is the ecological role of tiger sharks for such a pristine environment. Our researchers monitor species' behavior in order to better understand how prey respond to predators. We look at the direct and indirect impacts that predation has on the ecosystem, as well as the species that live there.

    Indirect Effects of Tiger Sharks

    Our scientists are interested in better understanding whether the presence of predators could cause unintended consequences for an ecosystem. In Shark Bay, we monitor the behavior of tiger sharks and their prey, and study how these relationships could impact the environment. Some grazing species, like dugongs and turtles, exhibit anti-predator behaviors in order to stay away from tiger sharks and avoid becoming their next meal. As a result, the seagrass they graze on has started to exhibit a change in nutrient composition. Tiger sharks seem to impact when, where and how green turtles and dugongs forage. This has huge implications for shark conservation: If sharks are prominent drivers of an area's trophic structure, it is critical to protect these keystone species in order to keep the ecosystem stable and thriving.

    Escape Tactics

    Many prey species will respond to threats very differently. Our researchers' work on prey behavior has shown that different species will respond in unexpected ways when it comes to survival:

    • Sea Snakes & Cormorants: these species have to rely on not being seen in order to survive an encounter with a tiger shark. For this reason, they tend to avoid tiger sharks altogether. When sharks show up, they often move to the middle of banks where the predators are less common and they can easily find places to hide. Even though there is plenty of food for snakes and comormants along bank edges, they won't take the risk of running into a tiger shark.
    • Dolphins & Dugongs: Rather than completely avoiding the sharks, these species move toward the bank edges when sharks show up. This is unexpected since these areas are also those where tiger sharks are most common. But our researchers found that dolphins and dugongs have a better change of escape by bank edges (where water is deeper) than they would in the middle banks (where water is shallower). Dolphins, dugongs and green turtles are better at maneuvering underwater than tiger sharks. So if the water is deep enough, they are likely to get away from a shark once they see it. If the water is too shallow, their chances of escape are much lower.
  • Shark Bay Education

    An important element of research is education. Our scientists have created K-12 lesson plans and species guides so that teachers can translate this research into applicable and practical information for students. With the help of educators, we can bring greater awareness to the importance of protecting our oceans and marine life. 

    Browse our SBERP teacher resources for more information.

Support Our Work

Your support helps us to join hands with the community in responding to the challenges faced by this World Heritage Site and other ecosystems around the world.