Photo courtesy Diane M. Sempler

May 29, 2016

Cornell, University of Queensland Offer Free Online Shark Course

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Already excited for shark week? Can’t get enough of the sharp toothed fish? Well, you’re in luck. Cornell University, in collaboration with The University of Queensland, has created a Massive Open Online Course on sharks titled ‘Sharks! Global Biodiversity, Biology and Conservation.’

The course is free and focuses on the total diversity of living cartilaginous fishes — the larger group of about 1,200 living species that includes the sharks, rays, and ratfishes, according to Prof.William Bemis, ecology and evolutionary biology, an instructor for the course. The course starts during Shark Week on June 28th and registration is currently open.

“Our course will be free to anyone in the world with an Internet connection,” Bemis said. “We thought this might help to spread our global conservation message that shark populations need help if we are to prevent further declines and possible extinctions.”

Acknowledging that sharks are a fascinating and complex species, Bemis said the course aims to answer the question — ‘How do scientists study sharks?’

“Sharks have fascinating and highly specialized sensory systems, including the ability to detect weak electric fields in the water,” Bemis said. “By comparing the anatomy of sensory systems in different types of sharks, you can gain insights into their sensory worlds to understand.”

Bemis added that new research and technologies are making significant contributions to the way in which scientists study and understand sharks. He said exploring these new developments will be an important component of the course.

“Students will have opportunities to track wild sharks, engage via our discussion board with course enrollees from around the world, learn tips for visiting local aquariums to study sharks, and see original research images documenting key biological concepts,” Bemis said.

The course will even offer students a chance to track shark movements on Twitter, according to the course website.

Bemis explained that the MOOC was born of a course he taught at Cornell’s Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, Maine.

“We wanted a chance to speak one to one with world authorities on shark tracking, sensory systems, evolutionary history, anatomy, behavior, ecology, and human interactions,” Bemis said. “So we recorded video interviews with more than 30 researchers at other institutions in North America and Australia.”

Prof. Ian Tibbetts, biology, University of Queensland, called the course an opportunity to understand shark evolution and learn from global experts in the field.

“The course enables participants to see the impact of human interactions on shark populations, the ecological role of sharks and the importance of conservation for these mysterious sea dwellers,” Tibbetts said.

For students who want to continue learning about sharks and are motivated to study sharks in nature, Bemis said a three week field course is being designed to act as a continuation of the MOOC.

“[The field course] will be held in Queensland Australia in Jan. 2018, and promises chances to learn about sharks first hand from leading scientists,” Bemis said.