Tiger Shark Research Finds ‘Remarkable’ Migrations

Long-term URI tracking shows sharks taking annual ‘highway road trip’

By ecoRI News staff

Tiger sharks can grow to be 14 feet long and weight 1,400 pounds. (Nick Filmalter/Danah Divers)

Tiger sharks can grow to be 14 feet long and weight 1,400 pounds. (Nick Filmalter/Danah Divers)

KINGSTON, R.I. — Tiger sharks are among the largest and most recognizable sharks on the planet, yet many of their habits remain mysterious because they are long-distance travelers that are difficult to track. But a new study co-led by a University of Rhode Island biologist has yielded the first long-term satellite tracking of the animals, revealing previously unknown migration patterns that are more similar to birds, turtles and marine mammals than fish.

Tiger sharks have long been believed to be a mainly coastal species, according to URI shark researcher Brad Wetherbee. But the sharks he and his colleagues from the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University tracked made 4,660-mile, round-trip journeys every year between two vastly different ecosystems — the coral reefs of the Caribbean and the open waters of the North Atlantic. And they returned reliably to the same areas each year, a discovery with significant conservation implications.

“Our success in tracking tiger sharks over multiple years has demonstrated a number of aspects of their ecology that are both surprising and unprecedented,” Wetherbee said. “They undergo extensive movements on a very broad scale and yet have remarkably consistent behaviors from one year to the next. Rather than just observing behaviors once, as is common in many studies, our research greatly expands understanding of movement ecology of highly migratory species on a long-term basis, which is crucial for the most effective management of marine animals.”

The details of the movements and migrations of tiger sharks and most other large shark species have been a mystery, because they are difficult to track for more than a few months due to the limitations of satellite tags and other logistics. For this project, the tags the team attached to sharks near Bermuda lasted in many cases more than two years and in some cases more than three years.

One tiger shark the researchers named Harry Lindo traveled more than 27,300 miles, the longest distance documented for a tiger shark.

The researchers showed that adult male tiger sharks in the Atlantic spend their winters in Caribbean island locales, including the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos Islands, and Anguilla. During summer, they travel into the North Atlantic, often more than 2,175 miles and as far north as southern New England, though well offshore in nearly the middle of the ocean.

“These repeated journeys were very unexpected,” said co-author James Lea of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. “The tiger shark has traditionally been considered a coastal species, and it is rare among sharks to so easily and habitually switch between the two vastly different environments.”

Remarkably, the sharks followed the same pattern each year and returned to almost the same small area in the Caribbean each time. What makes the tiger sharks so committed to particular areas is still an open question.

At the south end, the story may be fairly simple. Female tiger sharks are common in the Caribbean in the winter, so the Caribbean may just be the best place for male tiger sharks to find mates. Why they go so far north is more complicated.

Wetherbee said there must be something beneficial to the animals in the mid-Atlantic that makes it worthwhile for them to make the long trek north. One possibility is that they go to feed on young loggerhead turtles that also migrate north — when the researchers examined stomachs of some tiger sharks killed by long liners in the region, they did find turtle remains, but there are also turtles much farther south.

The only other instance when researchers have found a broadly similar, repeated migration pattern between coastal and distant open water regions is with the warm-bodied great white and salmon sharks in the Pacific. White sharks migrate in the winter from the California and Baja coasts to a mid-Pacific open water area dubbed the “White Shark Café.”

“We joke that tiger sharks, not being media stars like white sharks, wouldn’t be comfortable in a ‘café’ and prefer to hang out in their ‘truck-stop’ in the mid-Atlantic,” Wetherbee said.

All of the satellite tracks for tiger sharks in this study, as well as ongoing tracks for other species including mako sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks and marlins, can be found here.