Collecting Mermaid’s Purses at the British Seaside

By August 9th, 2013 at 11:49 am | Comment

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In the height of summer sunbathing, seaside shark sightings universally evoke childhood memories of Jaws, quickly followed by shouts of “Get out of the water!” Yet, fewer than 5 people a year (worldwide) die in shark attacks. Commercial fishing practices and by-catch look set to drive their extinction. Can scientists help save these vital predators?

The Great Eggcase Hunt (sponsored by the Save Our Seas Foundation, Co-Operative and Shark Trust) is working with citizen scientists to count and catalog shark, skate and ray mermaid’s purse, or eggcases, found along the seashore to help identify and protect marine nurseries.

There are more than 400 species of shark and over 600 species of skates and rays worldwide. Only the Smallspotted Catshark and Nursehound (near threatened), as well as approximately 16 skate and ray species, can be found along the coasts of the United Kingdom. They reproduce by laying tough leathery purses, or eggcases, in seafloor nurseries. After several months growing in its protected eggcase, the baby will emerge leaving the empty eggcase to wash ashore with the tides. Found among the seaweed, these curly purses are often collected by beachcombers as a simple souvenir of a great day out, but provide valuable clues on the whereabouts of vital underwater nurseries.


According to researchers at the Shark Trust, “The identification of these critical areas will enable the Shark Trust to propose conservation measures which will help to reverse the decline of these charismatic animals.”

Started in 2003, The Great Eggcase Hunt has become one of the most popular citizen scientist programs in the United Kingdom. Beachcombers have submitted over 32,000 individual eggcases helping scientists develop a detailed distribution map as well as vital information on population health and numbers.

Being a shark hunter has never been easier. The Shark Trust has developed excellent resources for eggcase hunters including visual identification guides and downloadable factsheets on each species found in British waters as well as their life cycle. They also have an easy to fill-out web form to submit your findings.

Why not grab a bucket, spade and camera then explore your local seaside this weekend?

Dr Melinda T. Hough is a freelance science advocate and communicator.  Her previous work has included a Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences (2012), co-development of several of the final science policy questions with (2012), consulting on the development of the Seattle Science Festival EXPO day (2012), contributing photographer for JF Derry’s book “Darwin in Scotland” (2010) and outreach projects to numerous to count.  Not content to stay stateside, Melinda received a B.S in Microbiology from the University of Washington (2001) before moving to Edinburgh, Scotland where she received a MSc (2002) and PhD (2008) from the University of Edinburgh trying to understand how antibiotics kill bacteria.  Naturally curious, it is hard to tear Melinda away from science; but if you can, she might be found exploring, often behind the lens of her Nikon D80, training for two half-marathons, or plotting her next epic adventure.

Photos: Shark Trust

Categories: Citizen Science

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