Are Sharks Just Misunderstood?

Sharks. They’re big, scary and chompy. Right? Or are they just misunderstood??
Today, to celebrate World Oceans Day, Charlotte Birkmanis joins the Particle Podcast. She’s a shark scientist who loves to chat. We talked about rebranding sharks and the weird creatures living deep in our seas.

Find Charlotte on instagram and twitter @CharlotteBirky or on her website

Particle Podcast is about science and the people who just love it. It’s produced and presented by Rose Kerr (@rosie.zkerr). Particle is powered by Scitech, and you can tweet us your favourite blog fish pictures @ParticleWA on Twitter and Instagram.


Are Sharks just misunderstood?

  • Host: Rose Kerr
  • Guest: Charlotte Birkmanis

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Rose Kerr – Welcome to the Particle Podcast, where we talk about science and the people who just love it.


Rose Kerr – My name is Rose and I believe the movie Sharkboy and Lavagirl deserves an Oscar. Combining two of those elements is Charlotte Birkmanis, sharkgirl and scientist. She joined us on the Particle Podcast to talk about conservation, shark marketing, and being an extrovert. I think it went swimmingly. To start off with, what do you do?

Charlotte Birkmanis – (laughs) What do I do? I ask myself that question as well. I am a marine biologist who specializes in sharks. So, I am a researcher. At the moment I’m at the University of Western Australia, and I’m currently finalizing my PhD research. And that involves, to me, I look at where sharks are, why they’re there, whether we’re protecting them and how that’s changed over time. So, that’s quite a big scope I’ve given you right there. (laughs)

Rose Kerr – Yeah. Is it something that you’ve always wanted to study?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Absolutely, absolutely. When I was little, I remember going to the beach and just being fascinated by the ocean. And then as I got older, I remember learning more about dolphins and whales and turtles, and I was interested, but it wasn’t until I found sharks. And the more I learned about them, the more fascinating they became. And you get to see the other side besides what you see in the media and in jaws. Of course, you can’t talk about sharks without that coming up, but they’re just absolutely amazing creatures.

Rose Kerr – Do you remember the point where you thought, ‘Oh, yes, that’s the animal or the marine animal that I’d like to work with’?

Charlotte Birkmanis – I do think it was probably when I first saw a shark in the wild. I’m actually from Queensland, so you know, waters are warmer over there and we have sort of smaller sharks that you can go swimming with. And I remember just, I think we were on holidays. We were just doing a snorkeling trip. And I remember seeing a little reef shark. And as it flicked away from me, I was just fascinated

Rose Kerr – Is swimming with sharks not scary?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Well, when we talk about sharks, there’s over 500 species.

Rose Kerr – Whoa!

Charlotte Birkmanis – So yeah, so if you’re talking about swimming with whale sharks, they’re a very big animal obviously. They’re the biggest fish in the ocean. And if you respect them, and obviously you give them their space, it can be an amazing experience. You can just go snorkeling with them and they will glide next to you. So, it can be, it’s incredible.

Rose Kerr – I have a question that actually came from some of the rest of the Particle team and you’ve segued into it so nicely. What does a shark feel like?

Charlotte Birkmanis – What does a shark feel like? Well, I can actually answer that. Their skin is quite rough, sort of akin to sandpaper, sort of wet sandpaper but they also have a sort of a, I don’t want to say slimy, sort of a mucus layer on it or something. So it’s sort of like this sandpaper that’s got something on it. So, to answer that question I have to say, they do feel like sandpaper.

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Rose Kerr – So, it sounds like every kid’s dream to get to work in a marine environment and swim with sharks and have this adventure. But are there downsides to working in this area?

Charlotte Birkmanis – (chuckles) Well, I have to emphasize it’s more staples and paperclips than swimming with sharks.

Rose Kerr – (laughs) Yep.

Charlotte Birkmanis – I was lucky enough to spend about four months doing research. Doing underwater filming and doing a bit of tagging, a bit of genetics work, isotopes, looking at what they eat, their diet and things like that within their behavior. But for every day you spend in the field, you’re looking at probably at least a month in the office, sorting out the data, looking at the samples. At the moment I’m doing statistical analysis. So once you’ve got where the sharks are, once you’ve got your data, you’ve got to analyze it. And that’s when the story really comes out. And we manage to tease it out by looking at the different variables around it, by looking at different factors. It depends on what you’re looking at. So I am driven by conservation of sharks and learning more about them. And that keeps me going. But I think if you were thinking to be a marine biologist or a shark scientist because you wanted to spend all day every day in the water, you’re probably better off as a tour guide or something like that.

Rose Kerr – When you study sharks, I’ll keep saying it broadly at this.

Charlotte Birkmanis – No, I most people do.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, in your study, and throughout your carrer, do you largely study them ex situ? Were there any times where you have them in a lab or anything like that? What was the lifestyle like?

Charlotte Birkmanis – It depends on the spieces and it depends on what you’re looking at. I have friends of mine that have looked at, for example, ‘the hearing of sharks’ or ‘do sharks sleep?’ or ‘the smell, how sharks smell’ and to do that you can keep smaller species in the tank, and you can observe them and you can study them that way. But I study oceanic species. And it’s pretty hard to keep a mako in a tank or an oceanic whitetip. So we do rely on where they’re seen, where they’re caught, or when we actually go and film them or tagging, things like that. So it’s a bit more difficult to keep one of these big guys in an aquarium and you wouldn’t want to anyway, these they cross oceans and tanks are not the place for them.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, absolutely. You’ve given me a question by answering. Yeah, do shark sleep?

Charlotte Birkmanis – That is actually a topic of a PhD that’s going on at the moment.

Rose Kerr – That’s crazy. It seems like such a simple question. And then, no surprise, it’s never that easy.

Charlotte Birkmanis – I know. And that’s also what fascinates me when I started learning about sharks, I was like, ‘Oh, we would, we would know so much about them,’ you know, especially white sharks, and they’re always in the newspaper. We see them off the beaches. But once you start learning more about them, there are huge gaps in our knowledge.

Rose Kerr – Do we know if sharks have emotions?

Charlotte Birkmanis – That’s a very human centric, I’m sure there’s a more scientific word for that, way to look at it. We do know that certain species are more gregarious than others and more social than others, that some individuals if they are put in a tank or a cage will actively seek out other individual sharks, while other sharks in that same area will actively avoid other sharks of the same species. So, it sort of depends how you look at it. Do they have emotions? Not in the way we do. Not the way mammals do, but they do have certain preferences that individuals do exhibit.

Rose Kerr – Are they quite social? Like with dolphins as a comparison, we see them as these very social animals, or at least that’s the way they’re perceived by the general public, perhaps. Are sharks similar in that behavior?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Again, it depends on the species. If you sort of look at some sharks at night, especially the smaller reef sharks, you see that they do sort of tend to group. And a group of sharks is called a shiver. So we do have a word for it. So some of them are but when you get the bigger species that they tend to be more solo creatures you would say. So again, when you’re talking about 500 different species, it sort of depends on what you’re looking at, but they’re not all solo ones. Some of them are more social than others. And also, if you think about it, bigger sharks and other animals eat smaller sharks. So like for everything, that’s tiny, there’s safety in numbers.

Rose Kerr – Do we have a lot of shark diversity in Australia?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yes, we do. We actually have a great diversity of sharks in Australia’s waters.

Rose Kerr – And what are usually the biggest threats? You said conservation is something that drives you, what are some of these threats that are threatening sharks?

Charlotte Birkmanis – There’s quite a few threats for sharks at the moment. We’ve got there’s they’re losing their habitat. So the places that they like to live are being encroached upon by us or by pollution or by plastics, things like that. We’ve also got climate change is impacting them in studies that we’re seeing at the moment. As well as they’re being fished, they’re being fished for their flesh and also for their fins. So there’s quite a few things out there that sharks have to avoid to reach a ripe old age.

Rose Kerr – Why do you think people should care about conservation? Not even just of sharks but of marine life?

Charlotte Birkmanis – People should care about conservation of marine life because even though we like to think that we’re top of the food chain. food web, we are actually part of this food web. We don’t live in isolation. If you like to eat seafood, if you like to eat tuna, if you like to see coral reefs, these are all part of the marine ecosystem. And an intact ecosystem is one that’s healthier, which will also benefit us. And sharks are part of that ecosystem. So are dolphins, you mentioned before, so are whales, and if you remove something from that food web, it will collapse. And those are the implications we’re just starting to see now. So if everyone cares about the ocean and cares about sharks as well as other animals, then actually, to put it selfishly, it absolutely benefits ourselves as well.

Rose Kerr – And sometimes that’s what people need to hear. That it affects them!

Charlotte Birkmanis – (laughs) Yeah, it is a message that does tend to get through. You could say, you know, ‘you should protect sharks.’ And if you do that, you’re you’re up against Jaws. You’re up against that sort of media. But if, you know, people can see that it does benefit them as well. And the more people that I think, see sharks and learn about them, learn that they are not these menacing machines that are out to get us, they’re actually fascinating.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, well, that’s something I wanted to ask about. Do you think the representation of sharks in pop culture means that they’re represented and potentially have a bit of a bad rap?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Oh, definitely sharks do get a bad rap. They need a new PR manager. Haha.

Rose Kerr – (laughs) What a cool job.

Charlotte Birkmanis – I know I’ll take it. I was actually thinking just from what I was looking on the internet, obviously I like sharks, I follow what’s going on. And there’s a couple of shark movies coming out. And there’s also a shark video game I saw and I can’t remember exactly what it’s called. It’s called something like Man Eater or something.

Rose Kerr – Oh, my goodness.

Charlotte Birkmanis – I know! So there’s this constant onslaught of that, that as a conservationist, as a shark scientist, you’ve got to find a sort of way to segue into what people want to talk about and get the conservation angle across.

Rose Kerr – If you were going to be the new PR management for sharks, what would be some of the things that you think people should know?

Charlotte Birkmanis – What should people know? As well as what we’ve discussed, that you know, they can be social. They have preferences. We might not say that they make friends, but they do prefer. They do have these individual preferences. And that’s something that we do just tend to think we have as mammals or dogs that we like we think that they have, but there’s actually a lot more to them. And also, the deep sea species, and we’ve got all of those over 500 species of sharks, but we’ve also got their relatives and we’re talking about rays and skates.

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Rose Kerr – To explain a little bit more, rays and skates are closely related to sharks. Sting rays, for example, are a type of ray. Both rays and skates are made up of cartilage.


Charlotte Birkmanis – And there’s chimaeras, which are the deep sea sharks, as well. So there’s such a great diversity that you can just keep discovering more and more about them every day.

Rose Kerr – It’s not just Sharknado and Jaws.

Charlotte Birkmanis – (laughs) No! Although the big guys with the teeth do tend to get the press.

Rose Kerr – Yes.

Charlotte Birkmanis – That’s very true. They but you know, it’s a great picture.

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Rose Kerr – Before we started recording, we were talking about our struggles as extroverts during the pandemic. Being stuck inside, and I love working in a team, and I always am interested in other scientists. Do you get to work in a team?

Charlotte Birkmanis – I’m actually part of a lab with other PhDs and my advisors. So we do have that. I also have an office that I work in, which has got other PhDs. And they’re not necessarily marine biologists, a lot of them are looking at insects or other things like that. So we do have that group within the university I’m in, but also, we have, yeah, I have, what do we call it? Shark student socials? So we have a group in Perth where those of us that do study sharks get together and have catch ups and everything.

Rose Kerr – Aw!

Charlotte Birkmanis – I know, we do our best to keep in touch. And I just talk about sharks to most people, but they pretend to be interested. Hopefully some of them actually are. (laughs)

Rose Kerr – Yeah. I like to think so.

Charlotte Birkmanis – I like to think so too.

Rose Kerr – Do you think that kind of environment of getting to talk even more in a casual context about what you study is beneficial to the research itself?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Absolutely. I do think so. I’ve just been chatting to some people and you know, what do you do? And of course, I’m very enthusiastic to talk about what I do. And at the end of it, people have said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know that about sharks,’ or ‘I’ve never met a scientist before,’ or sometimes it actually starts with ‘I’ve never had the courage to ask, but’ and it’s a question. And I was actually at the WA Museum and they had a predator versus prey exhibit, and I was one of the specialists that was in a panel there for the public. And afterwards, a little girl came up to me and she actually said, ‘I’ve never seen a lady talk about sharks before and I want to do that too.’

Rose Kerr – Aww!

Charlotte Birkmanis – And that makes it all worthwhile. You hear things like that. And I often do Skypes or Zoom calls, things like that. And I talk to a lot of people younger and older. But also, I’ve noticed that a lot of the younger girls, actually had a mother ask me if I would talk to her daughter, a friend of a friend of a friend. And afterwards the little girl was just asking all questions, but it was questions like that, like, ‘how could I do this? How do you find the day today?’ Things that they said that they’ve never had anyone to ask before and you don’t really want to put that on the internet. So I find it’s really beneficial for me and for them.

Rose Kerr – What are some of the best or weirdest questions that you find kids or maybe even adults have asked you?

Charlotte Birkmanis – (laughs) One that does come up a lot, is megaladon.

Rose Kerr – What is that?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Megaladon is you know, have you seen the movie The Meg?

Rose Kerr – No.

Charlotte Birkmanis – The ancient shark. The fossilised shark that…

Rose Kerr – Oh! Yes.

Charlotte Birkmanis – What is it? So many, I think it’s three or four times bigger than the great white or something like that. Don’t quote me on that. A lot larger than the modern, great white.

Rose Kerr – Yes.

Charlotte Birkmanis – And that does capture people’s imaginations and there’s always at least one ‘Is megalodon alive?’ and then you go through and say ‘It’s not likely. We would see whales that would have been eaten or we only find their teeth. We don’t see anything fresh like that.’ Next thing is ‘what about the bottom of the Mariana Trench?’ I say it’s unlikely for the other reasons. And then sometimes it’s just like, okay, it’s very, no, I haven’t been to the Mariana Trench. No, I haven’t seen it myself. But it’s very, it’s like, okay,

Rose Kerr – I like that they’re dreaming. I like that they’re really thinking that you specifically are going out and you found it and you know where it is.

Charlotte Birkmanis – (laughs) I know! I take that it’s like, ‘Oh, thank you. You obviously think I’m quite smart. That can only be a good thing.’

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Rose Kerr – Have you ever doubted your choice of study and work pathway?

Charlotte Birkmanis – (chuckles) Yes, I have at the moment you’re talking to somebody who’s about to submit the thesis for their PhD.

Rose Kerr – Oh, yeah.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Umm not my big picture as in studying sharks and marine biology. But sometimes I wonder if this thesis was the best thing I could have been doing? Just when you get bogged down into statistics and programming languages. But you know, if it was easy, we probably wouldn’t be able to learn as much. But as to whether I doubt what I’m doing is what I should be doing? No, never. Which I think is a luxury.

Rose Kerr – Exactly. And it’s, it sounds like it’s given you opportunities to travel and meet so many other people passionate about what you’re passionate about. It’s really cool.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yeah, absolutely. There is some conferences that we go to. There’s international shark conferences, and it’s really good to go and see there. And then you see people that you’ve only read about before and you can chat to them. It’s actually a really supportive and a very friendly environment.

Rose Kerr – Are there lots of people out there studying sharks?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yeah, there’s quite a few. I think there are definitely hundreds.

Rose Kerr – I imagine that’s a bit of a sense of camaraderie.

Charlotte Birkmanis – There is there is. And there’s the sharks, which you typically think of as sharks again, and then there’s the flat sharks, which are the rays. So there’s, there’s a large number of people that are involved. And again, it depends. Some people study the sea mounts and how sharks interact with them. And some people study the deep sea and sort of how other animals interact. So there’s a great variety of things you can do. You don’t just have to do biology, there’s oceanography. There’s all sorts of things that if you want to do marine biology, that are open to you.

Rose Kerr – Oh, so there’s more than one pathway into it. Absolutely. What pathway did you choose?

Charlotte Birkmanis – I would say I went the academic pathway. I did my high school subjects to get into university, but I also mine’s a little different maybe. I also did a Bachelor of Arts in Mandarin Chinese.

Rose Kerr – Oh whoa!

Charlotte Birkmanis – And then I lived in China for a few years too.

Rose Kerr – What were you doing there?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Well, the idea was to get fluent, but the more you learn Chinese, it’s still quite difficult. So I got fluency in the end. And I really did enjoy it. It was a great experience living over there. And then I came back and did some more research and I was a consultant for a little while.

Rose Kerr – That’s so interesting.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yeah. And that’s what I would definitely recommend is getting a few feathers in your cap as it were. Sort of getting different things that you can do, whether it’s doing different programs, like mapping or statistics or things like that, or speaking another language or being an expert in a certain area or certain species. Something that will help you have your niche and then you can grow upon that.

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Rose Kerr – When did you start getting into science communication?

Charlotte Birkmanis – I honestly fell into science communication. It just started with me chatting, as I’m prone to do. And then gradually someone said, ‘Can you come and chat to’ (a friend of mine’s a teacher). Can I come chat at their school? And sure I did a talk at their school. And then gradually you get more and more requests. And I do Skype for scientists. And now, yeah, I do a lot of, just started up a web page. And I’ve started doing Instagram and Twitter as ways to get the word out there. And it’s just basically gone from there.

Rose Kerr – How have you found the online science community?

Charlotte Birkmanis – I find the online science community on Twitter to be very inspiring. There’s a lot of people on there you find out a lot about the science that’s going on or the science communication, things like that. But I haven’t really accessed other avenues online.

Rose Kerr – Yeah, I…

Charlotte Birkmanis – It’s something I’d like to get into. I should.

Rose Kerr – It’s a I find that it’s almost it’s the bringing together of a lot of voices and people putting out information and science communication. But also there’s somehow so much it can, it can feel like you get a little bit lost.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yes, there’s that there is a lot going on. And there’s also obviously as we know, a lot of misinformation out there. So that’s why it is very important for people to be willing to talk about what they do as I look at it, my scholarship is paid for by the taxpayer. So I work for you. So if you have questions, I’d love to answer them.

Rose Kerr – Answering all the weird shark questions.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Oh, yeah, the weirder to the better.

Rose Kerr – That’s so good. That’s good, because we’ve got a few (laughs)

Charlotte Birkmanis – (laughs)

Rose Kerr – I saw that you did some work with the Naked Scientists.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yes. Thank you for bringing that up. Right now. I’m meant to be in Cambridge! I was awarded a fully paid for two months trip working with them and obviously they’re alive with the BBC. And it will be amazing when I get to go, I realize that there are other people that are missing out on a lot more than I am. So it’s something that I’m really looking forward to doing in the near future. Maybe next year I imagine, when when we can. So that’s something I’m really looking forward to.

Rose Kerr – I saw that you competed in FameLab.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Can you explain what that is for anyone who hasn’t heard about it before?

Charlotte Birkmanis – FameLab is a global science communication competition, where you’re armed with nothing but your wits as they say no PowerPoint, no jargon. You basically have to get your message across in three minutes. And it’s to a general audience like your listeners. And so it really keeps us on our toes. We’re used to relying on the PowerPoint presentations and you know, our scientific words. So it’s a really good experience to break that down. And this year was the first time ever they had it online. So it was basically from my lounge room to yours.

Rose Kerr – What inspired you to get involved with it?

Charlotte Birkmanis – I did the Three Minute Thesis and I enjoyed that. And then this came up and I thought it would have some good training for me and a good experience and hopefully meet other people that are doing this and basically learn from the professionals. How they do what they do, because they obviously do it so well.

Rose Kerr – Was it intimidating?

Charlotte Birkmanis – It wasn’t intimidating because it was all online.

Rose Kerr – Ah, that helps.

Charlotte Birkmanis – It was literally my iPhone on the table on a little stand and me standing with my shark. You know, my little shark toys to tell a story.

Rose Kerr – Oh, how sweet.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yeah if I had the chance to do it again. Obviously I’d do it differently. But yeah, it was it was a great experience. And it was a learning curve for everyone. I think no one really expected it to be like this. So hopefully a little bit of sunshine in people’s lives at that time.

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Rose Kerr – I’ve come armed with some questions from the rest of the Particle podcast team that we’d really like to asked you. So we’re gonna move through some of those. And I think what I might have to call a bit of a rapid fire random questionnaire or something, we’re gonna need a better title than that, but I’ve got a whole bunch that I’d love to work through. Firstly, hammerhead sharks.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yes.

Rose Kerr – Why are they built like that?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Well, they actually have a bit of an advantage because as you know, they have their wide head. It’s actually filled with an array of sensors, so they eat stingrays and they can find them on the ocean floor. And because they have basically this larger area with these sensors on it, they can find their prey more easily. And they almost have 360 degree vision as well.

Rose Kerr – Oh, my goodness!

Charlotte Birkmanis – I know! So having your eyes sort of at the side of your head on the outside, could actually be quite beneficial if that’s what you do. Probably not so much for us.

Rose Kerr – What are they usually eating?

Charlotte Birkmanis – It depends. Some of them eat other sharks, some of them eat sting rays. They have a variety. Again, there’s quite a few species of hammerheads. There’s a scallped hammerhead, the great hammerhead, just to name a few.

Rose Kerr – If you could have any shark abilities, so something that a shark can do. What would you like to be able to do?

Charlotte Birkmanis – I would have to sort of follow on from what a lot of the students ask, I’d like to be able to just to go down to the depths of the ocean and see what’s down there. Maybe even to the bottom of the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Rose Kerr – It would make so many of those kids and adults happy to know.

Charlotte Birkmanis – (laughs) We can put a GoPro on my back, of course!

Rose Kerr – Yes, good. What are some of the weirdest marine creatures you’ve ever come across, or ones that maybe you’ve just heard about?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Umm I’m actually really fascinated by octopus, I have to admit. And there’s the deep sea I think it’s the Dumbo octopus or something like that. If you watch NOAA or their feeds, they often have these deep sea expeditions they’re going on and you can watch it live. And they have all these incredible animals that they see. But there’s also the deep sea fish, like sort of the blob fish and things like that, that we, we can’t really study them up on the surface because they’re used to this high gravity. And so you sort of have to see them where they live to really see their behaviors and what they’re doing. So I think that’s very fascinating.

Rose Kerr – How deep can we go in terms of studying marine life?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Well, we’ve gone to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.

Rose Kerr – That’s just so far!

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yeah. 12 kilometers? Don’t quote me on that. I think it’s it’s quite deep. So it depends. Again, it depends on the research you’re doing. I know that there’s some marine biologists that specialize on this deep zone, and they have their submersibles that go down there. Then they do the filming. And we sort of tag sharks and then when they go down to the depths, we have sensors that tell us depth and oxygen and temperature while they’re down there. So we get a lot of information that way.

Rose Kerr – Do you ever get jealous of other teams getting to do different research?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Always! You always want to be where someone else is. Absolutely. I was lucky enough to spend, as I said about four months, and I spent quite a few months in the Chagos Archipelago which is literally the middle of the Indian Ocean. And that was an amazing experience.

Rose Kerr – What was it like? Like, what did you do while you were there?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Umm looking at the sharks and seeing their behavior. So we did underwater filming diving with with the cameras to see the bottom of the reef and to see how the sharks interacted. Then we also had baited remote cameras which we put basically fish which you swish up so it’s nice and tasty for the sharks on the end of a long pole. And then you drop that down and it either floats or sits in the bottom and that sits there for about an hour. And then because it’s got the bait on the front of it, it attracts the sharks and so you see the sharks and how they interact with each other when we’re not there.

Rose Kerr – That’s so exciting.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yeah, and we also did some tagging, acoustic tagging which is sort of like putting a Fitbit on a shark. And then yeah, then we have receivers, which are like Wi Fi. And as the shark goes up to the Wi Fi it pings, and so we know where they are. So we did a bit of that to see exactly where they’re traveling and what they’re doing. And we just take some fish as well. So we can see how the ecosystem in a very, very small part of it, how they interact with each other when we’re not there blowing bubbles.

Rose Kerr – Have they ever surprised you with their behavior?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Oh, absolutely. I was part of a team that was taking tiger sharks off Ningaloo, which is off Western Australia here. And we expected them all just to go north as there normally would have been more water, but one went south and went straight down to the bight. There’s always that one guy that does something you just not quite prepared for.

Rose Kerr – And why did they did like, why did they do that? Do you think?

Charlotte Birkmanis – There’s just so much we don’t know. We’re still learning things every day.

Rose Kerr – And thank goodness for that. Otherwise you’d be out of work.

Charlotte Birkmanis – I know! Absolutely.

Rose Kerr – There’s something that one of the Particle team members wants me to ask about, and it’s called tonic immobility?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yes.

Rose Kerr – What is it?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Tonic immobility is the capacity for sharks, when you turn them upside down, they go into a state of immobility as it was. They sort of you don’t want to say comatose, they just sort of go into a deep sleep as it was.

Rose Kerr – Why is that? Like evolutionary wise, do we know why it happens?

Charlotte Birkmanis – It’s something I’ve been thinking about and I don’t have a very great answer for you. I’m afraid. Maybe one of your audience would, it seems to be why would they go upside down naturally? Unless it’s I don’t think it’s anything to do with mating.

Rose Kerr – People are gonna have to flip a bunch of sharks to find out!

Charlotte Birkmanis – (laughs) Yeah, well, it’s not ideal because they can also sort of stop breathing as well. So don’t go flipping sharks.

Rose Kerr – No. Have you ever had to do it?

Charlotte Birkmanis – No, not myself. No, the work I’ve done with shark tagging, we’ve sort of brought them up to the boat and done it that way.

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Rose Kerr – When you meet people, what’s the reaction when you say that you work with sharks?

Charlotte Birkmanis – It tends to be polarized. It’s either ‘that that is amazing!’ or ‘why on earth would you do that?’ I think my parents and my family have gone through both of those. Like, why don’t you study whale sharks? They don’t have teeth. Or the small little baby ones that you can keep in a tank. So yeah, it’s surprising. I’ve actually have been asked, ‘How did you get into it?’ A lot of people do say ‘I wanted to be a marine biologist. But then I decided not to.’ There’s quite a few people that say that. Yeah, and some people are parents as well as saying ‘Oh, my son or daughter would like to do this would you have a chat to them?’ So it depends. It’s simply a variety of different things. Most people are interested in sharks. But whether that comes from a desire to learn more about them to avoid them, or to see more of them tends to depend on the person.

Rose Kerr – Hmm. What do you think are some of the misconceptions people have of your career or maybe of the industry?Or maybe even of sharks? Whichever way you would like.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Misconceptions about sharks and working with them. Umm I would say what as we discussed before, it would be the fact that you spend all day every day scuba diving, living on a coral reef and having a great time in the ocean. As there’s a lot more time that’s spent analyzing the data not necessarily interacting with the animals. Also, I’d say some people think that there’s only one path that you have to do a PhD or go that way but there’s a lot of different ways you can do it. Not everyone who works in the industry goes through university. Some people are technicians that do help with the field work and set things up that side. A lot of people do policy and government, make sure that we’re protecting them that marine parks are, where they should be and things like that. There’s a lot of different different avenues you can take.

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Rose Kerr – I would like to ask for your best fun fact. And to be honest, I’ve already learned so much already by talking to you. I’m expecting big things so no pressure.

Charlotte Birkmanis – No pressure. How can I live up to that? I do have, don’t forget you’re talking to a shark geek. So what I think is a fun fact may or may not be. What do sharks and trees have in common?

Rose Kerr – Oh, they’re big? (laughs)

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yes, I didn’t think of that big as well. Actually, the way that we age sharks is by rings on their vertebrae. Yeah, I actually did some research on that for my honours research. My honours project I did earlier. And it depends, again, on the species, sometimes they’re laid annually. So every year they’ll have a new ring, but sometimes it’s biannually. And these are things that we’re still figuring out as well. And so you can actually age sharks by looking at the number of rings on their vertebrae. Unfortunately, there’s only one way to get vertebrae and it’s not really good for the fish.

Rose Kerr – Yes, that makes sense.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Is that a fun fact for you?

Rose Kerr – That is definitely a fun fact. Although now I have follow up questions. (laughs)

Charlotte Birkmanis – Of course, go!

Rose Kerr – So the rings on the vertebrae, what are they is that because they’re like growth rings?

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yes, sharks uhh something that I can’t say cartilaginous? They can drink these they have cartilage for their vertebrae for their bones unlike us. And so this is sort of laid down they have their artery that goes along their spinal column. Along the vertebral column, and then they also have the vertebrae which grows from a center birth ring as it was and then it grows out as they get bigger, their vertebrae gets bigger as well.

Rose Kerr – That’s yeah, okay, I really would never have guessed that. It really is like a tree.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Then my job here is done. (laughs) I did a whole year looking at the less exciting side of it about the structure of the vertebrae, and I think about 26 different species and how it all holds it together. That’s sort of more visual. Unless we’re a podcast.

Rose Kerr – And it’s still and you still kept going, studying sharks even after that.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yes, to be honest, the reason I switched, I got offered a PhD in that, but for me, it was too much. Every single shark I saw, I was taking the vertebrae which gotta a bit wearing.

Rose Kerr – It’s heartbreking.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yeah, that’s the word for it. It was hard. And after a while, I realized it wasn’t an avenue I wanted to take. I prefer filming them.

Rose Kerr – Oh, so great.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Yeah.

Rose Kerr – Where do your hope your career goes from here? You’re so close to finishing your PhD.

Charlotte Birkmanis – (laughs) Employment. I really enjoy the research. And I love that side of it. And I enjoy the communication side of it as well as I don’t know, I love a chat you may or may not be able to tell. And so I’d really like to combine the two in a way that allows education. So that sort of doing the research and then sharing it in live time as well. These are things that I’m still trying to figure out exactly how it would work. So next, after you’ve done a PhD, there’s something called a post doctorate, which you do more research. So I’d like to do that. They tend to be 1-3 years sort of contracts, where you sort of change between laboratories or between projects. So I’d like to do that. And keep looking at especially these oceanic sharks. I study oceanic whitetips and they’ve just been declared critically endangered. And blue sharks, the ones that are out in the Big Blue and we don’t know that much about them. Mako, sharks are Ferraris of the ocean. I’d love to learn more about them and basically pass that knowledge on as well.

Rose Kerr – I really like that and after today, hearing so much more, I think it’s safe to say there’s gonna be a lot more to find out.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Definitely,definitely.

Rose Kerr – Thank you so much for joining us today.

Charlotte Birkmanis – Thank you very much for having me. I really enjoyed it.

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Rose Kerr – Thank you for listening to the Particle Podcast. You can find more of our content on all of the socials as well as at This episode as always, was made in the vibrant science hub that is Western Australia and Particle is powered by Scitech.

Rose Kerr
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Rose Kerr
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