URI senior tracks tiger sharks to understand migratory patterns

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KINGSTON, R.I. – November 3, 2010 – New England residents were running from coastal sharks last summer, but New York City resident and University of Rhode Island senior Jessica Bonamusa spent her summer tracking them as part of her Coastal Fellows research.

Working with her mentor, Bradley Wetherbee, a URI biology professor, Bonamusa was immersed in a research project tracking and collecting data associated with tiger sharks in Bermuda.

“I started the summer analyzing data about the depth and water temperature preference of the sharks,” said Bonamusa. “The second half of the summer was more research intensive.”

After looking at data, Bonamusa was responsible for researching theories associated with migration and foraging patterns that were inconsistent with previous assumptions about the sharks’ behaviors.

“Not much is known about tiger sharks. They were thought to be coastal animals, but they actually go up the coast and then out to the ocean in more of a pelagic pattern,” Bonamusa said, referring to the long span of time the tiger sharks spend in open Atlantic waters.

Managing large sets of data hasn’t been an easy task for Bonamusa.

“Jessica is analyzing the data with somewhat complex mathematical models relating direction of movements and the time it takes to move a certain distance to forage in order to quantify when the sharks are feeding as opposed to just moving to and from locations,” said Wetherbee.

In order to test these theories, Bonamusa tackled a complex statistical software program on her own while Wetherbee was in Bermuda conducting more research.

“When Dr. Wetherbee left for Bermuda, I was instructed to do research on the two migration theories. I was overwhelmed at first, but I was then able to find my way through research papers, the statistical software and other helpful information,” said Bonamusa, now working on discovering how the collected shark data reflects the basis of the two main migration theories.

URI’s Coastal Fellows program, based at the university’s College of the Environment and Life Sciences, grants undergraduate students with the opportunity to work in a structured setting with professionals to address certain environmental issues and concerns. Students are paired with mentors and staff to enrich their knowledge of scientific research on a topic that correlates with their major and future career goals.

Taking on heavy workloads isn’t a foreign concept for Bonamusa, who is a double major in marine biology and the classics. She pursues a wide range of interests, from environmental research to serving as the secretary of the URI Classics Society.

With her impending graduation sneaking up, Bonamusa is still thinking about her future education plans.

“As a child I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist, and now I’m looking into different areas, especially squid,” she said, her interests stemming from a puzzling interaction with a group of squid while snorkeling with her father, which left her wanting to know more about animal communication.

Overall, Bonamusa’s involvement in the Coastal Fellows program has afforded her many rewarding lessons.

“The most rewarding aspect of the research was working on migration theories because I researched them and applied them to the shark’s movement,” she said. “Not much is known about them so working on this project with Dr. Wetherbee made me feel like I was making a real contribution.”

Pictured above Jessica Bonamusa

URI Department of Communications & Marketing photo by Michael Salerno Photography.

This release was written by Alicia Blain, an intern in URI’s Department of Communications and Marketing and a public relations major.