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Researchers tag free-swimming sharks off Cape Cod using minimally invasive device

Gregory Skomal, a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries shark scientist, used the tagging pole on Nov. 7.
Gregory Skomal, a Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries shark scientist, used the tagging pole on Nov. 7.Courtesy of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy

Researchers and scientists were recently able to use fin-mounted location tracking tags on free-swimming sharks off of Cape Cod while using a device that allowed them to tag the sharks without capturing them, according to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy.

“This is the first time this type of tag was deployed on free-swimming sharks off of Cape Cod,” said Megan Winton, research scientist at AWSC.

Two Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting (SPOT) tags were deployed using a new device called Tag Attachment Device, or the TADpole, the AWSC said in statement Monday. The SPOT tag communicates with an overhead satellite whenever the shark’s fin goes above the water, relaying location information back to researchers within hours, Winton said.

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Greg Skomal, a marine biologist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries and a leading shark expert, was able to attach the tags using the device successfully while working with Winton on Nov. 7.

Originally designed to tag free-swimming dolphins, the TADpole allows for the sharks to be tagged in a minimally invasive way by tagging them to the fins. This is compared to how the SPOT tags are normally attached, via capture of the shark and drilling a hole in its dorsal fin, the AWSC said in a statement.

“That is what is so great about this,” Winton said. “This is a way less invasive process and it’s less stressful for shark researchers and sharks when it doesn’t involve capture and handling.”

The TADpole works by using compressed air, Winton said.

“When Greg held the end of it over the dorsal fin of the shark, it detected the fin and it made a ‘whoosh’ sound, attaching to the fin,” she said.

“The DMF’s successful deployment of two SPOT tags from the AWSC vessel, using this new device, bodes well for using this technology in the future,” Cynthia Wigren, AWSC’s chief executive, said in a statement.

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The TADpole was conceived by Randall Wells from the Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Program, as well as Michael Moore, Tom Lanagan, and Jason Kapit from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the statement read. It was developed at Woods Hole with support from Dolphin Quest Inc. and the Dolphin Biology Research Institute.

“We are thrilled that this tagging tool has conservation applications and benefits beyond our initial ideas,” Kapit said in a statement. “This success is a perfect example of how technology development can expand the possibilities and reach of scientific research, even beyond the originally intended applications.”

Skomal was approached by those who made it for its possible use on free-swimming sharks, Winton said.

“It was a successful test of this new really exciting contraption,” Winton said.


Breanne Kovatch can be reached at breanne.kovatch@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @breannekovatch.