Professor Peter Bushnell’s work on Greenland sharks makes cover of Science

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Professor Peter Bushnell and his tagging crew in Greenland. PHOTO/HENRICK SCHURMANN
Professor Peter Bushnell and his tagging crew in Greenland.

Staff Writer

A project that started nearly six years ago has finally brought media coverage, fan mail and the cover of Science magazine to one IU South Bend professor.

Professor Peter Bushnell recently made national news with his studies on Greenland sharks. His team’s research on the aging of the species Somniosus microcephalus landed them the front cover of the Aug. 12 issue of Science.

The acceptance rate in Science is six percent, according to Bushnell. “The first couple of days were just pandemonium,” he said. “We were even more thrilled when we got the cover.”

According to Bushnell, the Washington Post, PBS and CNN are among the many outlets that have picked up the story.

Shortly after the media attention, Bushnell began to receive postcards with encouraging words thanking him for his work. Most saying, “Thanks for the work,” and “You’re doing a great thing,” Bushnell said.

Bushnell’s trips to the remote island of Greenland began nearly 20 years ago. In 1979 Bushnell and a colleague first became fascinated with the sharks.

“On one of our trips we ran into a fisherman who caught a Greenland shark,” Bushnell said. “We were intrigued when we heard they were rumored to be really old.”

Very little research had been done about them, according to Bushnell.

Bushnell and his colleagues were able to get started with the help of funding from, National Geographic and the Save Our Seas Foundation.

“It was the basic fundamental characteristics that are worth pursuing,” said Bushnell. “We wanted to know what they were eating and where they were going so we began putting satellite tags on them.”

Satellite tags are little instruments about the size of a cigar. They contain a tether, satellite and a little float on them, according to Bushnell. These instruments can be implanted on an animal to log temperature, depth and light levels.

After the tags are attached to the animal they are released and the tags collect data until a specific date at which point they are then automatically cut off and make their way to the surface. Once to the top, the data is transmitted to the satellite.

Bushnell also began to collect tissue samples to see whether they can age them.

Over the years the trips to Greenland were primarily during the summer months as Bushnell teaches at IUSB for nine months out of the year.
Each trip typically lasted about two weeks, according to Bushnell. However, with the far northern regions being extremely remote Bushnell’s team could only access the area by research vessel.

Research was done both in labs and in the field.

“I love the field work,” said Bushnell. “It is fun and you are in Greenland. It is a place hardly anyone ever goes, among icebergs and seeing glaciers first hand. It is just beautiful.”

Now, Bushnell’s team is trying to define the future of the project, according to Bushnell.

The study regarding the blood sampling is about to be published while the satellite tagging is being written up.

“There is so much research to be done but you can only do so much of it,” Bushnell said. “You have to pick and choose what you want to pursue since you are limited by time, money and trying to get to where you want to go.”

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