Understanding sharks: an interview with Professor Nick Payne

Ciarán Ó Cuív talks to Professor Nick Payne to discuss his coastal upbringing, love for sharks, and plans for the future

Since joining the Zoology department at the beginning of the academic year, Assistant Professor Nick Payne has already made a name for himself on a national scale. He was interviewed for television for his work on a research project which revealed the impressive speeds that basking sharks can travel as they breach. His enthusiasm and passion for his work is evident to any student who has been lucky enough to be in his zoology class. His office is filled with all kinds of equipment, but make no mistake, this is not clutter in the normal sense. At the time of the interview, all his equipment was neatly laid out on two opposite sides of his work bench, needed for two separate field trips he was undertaking for his current research projects.

“From an early age, his relationship with the sea and the coast was formed, and much of his free time at the beach was spent surfing and fishing among other things.”

Payne was raised in a remote coastal area in South Australia, where along the coastal beaches and in the lush rainforests, his interest in marine biology originated. From an early age, his relationship with the sea and the coast was formed, and much of his free time at the beach was spent surfing, fishing, and generally immersing himself in the flora and fauna of his home. This appreciation for nature was met by a desire to learn about it, and led him to pursue a degree in Environmental Sciences at the University of Adelaide. Biology remained his primary interest, but he acknowledges that by studying the other branches of science, he was able to get a better understanding of the dynamic interactions between all components in the ecosystem. “When I was studying chemistry in high school,” he says, “at the time I found it boring but it’s now that I see I’m using it quite a bit.” His undergraduate thesis involved a research project on small teleost fish and marked the beginning of his academic work on marine biology. This was immediately followed by a PhD where he studied giant cuttlefish, before an opportunity arose to take part in a postdoctoral research project based in Japan for two years.

“The sharks in particular here are just incredible,” he says, “so interesting for different reasons, their biology, life history, and physiology.”

The project involved looking at various shark species including white sharks. While he had originally planned to conduct at least some of the field work in Japanese waters, a series of logistical issues resulted in his field research being conducted mainly in the Great Barrier Reef, where some of his field work for previous projects had also been completed. He says that this is not something he regrets in any way, and that on the contrary, it meant he had another opportunity to do research in one of the world’s greatest marine biodiversity hotspots, an experience which he describes as “awesome”. His move to Roehampton in London ushered in collaborations with Irish research groups studying sharks. “The sharks in particular here are just incredible,” he says, “so interesting for different reasons, their biology, life history, and physiology.”

Payne is currently working on a number of projects. His most recent work has been on basking sharks – often considered slow, inactive animals due to the passive nature of their filter feeding of zooplankton. His team compared the breaching speed of basking sharks with that of great whites, which have the capacity to hunt down large agile prey like seals by maintaining higher cruising speeds. When great whites breach, it is usually a result of trying to catch a seal, and yet, they observed that great whites’ breaching speeds are comparable to those of the much larger basking sharks. It is still unclear why it is that basking sharks breach at all, but according to Payne, it is likely to be a social behaviour, given the context in which it has been observed. “It’s interesting that they only seem to do it at a certain time of year and they seem to do it when they’re aggregating with animals of the same species. To me, it has to be related to something to do with communication, mating or courtship.” Some researchers have suggested that it may also have a function in parasite removal, with the rapid deceleration associated with dropping back into the water potentially removing certain types of external parasites. But Payne says that until there are further studies, “it’s impossible to know.”

In his field of work, success is not guaranteed and there is always the fear of something going wrong. The tagging process, for example, is expensive and there is always a risk for equipment to go missing. He thinks back at one such case, “a disastrous trip in the Barrier Reef, where we tagged three sharks and only got one back”. To help improve research methods, Payne is measuring swimming activity of tuna after release, with the aim of furthering our understanding on how physiological responses vary depending on the method employed to capture fish during tagging operations. The more a fish’s behaviour is altered by the tagging process, the less likely any results derived from the sample are going to be representative of the natural behaviour. Research questions such as these are vitally important in the development of research methods that reduce the potential for bias as much as possible.

Sharks undoubtedly remain Payne’s focus even now, and he is set to begin work on bluntnose six-gilled sharks to understand why it is that this usually deep ocean shark, found at depths of 600m and deeper in places such as Hawaii, are instead found at much shallower depths of 30m off the south-west coast of Kerry. Many marine animals, in particular deep-marine species, are still poorly understood due to the obvious challenges in studying them. “Once you move away from coastal habitats,” he says, “they become hard to study.” He doesn’t let this discourage him, however, instead this desire to learn more about these creatures motivates him in his work: “We don’t know what they’re doing here, so that’s what we’re trying to find out.” As for possible explanations, he speculates that the sharks may simply do this due to their tendency to stay in waters no warmer than 15 or 16 degrees Celsius, which in Hawaii are found in deep waters and in Ireland are found closer to the surface.

“Ultimately, his arrival looks to be a win-win for all involved, with students, Irish research, and Payne himself all set to benefit.”

Payne has a permanent placement at Trinity as a lecturer and is looking forward to his increasing his teaching presence in the zoology department, on top of continuing to play a role in teaching the marine biology module together with Prof. Nessa O’Connor. An elective module relating to sustainable living and technological innovation, due to be introduced next year, will also be spearheaded by Payne. His passion and enthusiasm for the research opportunities in Ireland is also promising. He has submitted a number of funding applications in order to have PhD students join his research group and ultimately expand on the research projects he and his colleagues are working on. Having a resident shark expert in the zoology department will provide students with even greater opportunities for their research projects, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Ultimately, his arrival looks to be a win-win for all involved, with students, Irish research, and Payne himself all set to benefit.

It is clear that the way this professor sees it, the waters surrounding Ireland hold enormous potential for research and that he considers himself fortunate to be in a position where he can experience firsthand the unravelling of Ireland’s little known wealth in marine life. “It’s great for me because it’s such as relatively small island in terms of population of humans, but such an incredible array of marine animals to study,” he says. “I love the research opportunities I have here”.