Climate Change & Sharks

How resilient are sharks to climate change, and how adaptive are communities and businesses that rely on them as a resource?


Climate change is having, and will continue to have, an enormously varied set of impacts on the world’s oceans. Overall, we can expect several key changes on the oceans (from IPCC 2013) which include:

  1. A further 2.6 – 4.8 °C warming by 2100
  2. A further decrease in pH by 0.4 units by 2100
  3. Decreases in dissolved oxygen, and more ‘dead spots’ of very low oxygen
  4. Changes in salinity depending on location (increases with warming, but can also decrease owing to other oceanographic factors)

Research is showing implications of these changes for wildlife and ecosystems, but this work is particularly challenging for highly mobile marine animals, such as sharks. Most sharks’ body temperature follows that of the environment – unlike mammals (and some partially endothermic sharks), they are ectothermic and cannot generate their own body heat. Sharks, like other animals, have an ideal range for temperature, above or below which they are not able to perform basic functions optimally. We can measure shark responses to temperature ranges in controlled lab setting very precisely. For larger marine animals, such as large coastal sharks, which cannot be maintained in the lab, studying climate change impacts presents several logistical challenges. However, new techniques provide ways of approximating such relationships in the field. Here at SRC, we are conducting a series of research projects to begin exploring some of the impacts climate variability is having on sharks. Some of the primary projects we are conducting include:

  1. Developing and using new types of satellite tags to explore optimal environmental conditions for shark activity in the wild
  2. Measure biomarkers of stress and oxygen transport in blood and muscle samples collected from sharks in the wild to see if and how these indicators change with temperature and oxygen levels in the water. Comparing our results across environmental conditions, and between different species, can shed light on whether these sharks make adjustments to cope with a changing environment, how they might be affected by fishery capture under different environmental conditions, and whether certain species are predisposed to be more resilient to climate variability
  3. Exploring shark hunting behaviors in response to long-term climate variability. Recently, we analyzed a 15-year record of white shark predations on cape fur seals in False Bay, South Africa, in relation to climate variables. Past research has found water temperature to influence feeding behavior of fish. However, in a natural system, many other factors can drive feeding behavior, so temperature-driven patterns are not so simple to detect or even investigate. At Seal Island, water temperature was a significant predictor of daily and monthly variability in predation rates of white sharks on seals. However, year to year variability in predation rates appeared linked to other environmental factors such as wind, water visibility, and the occurrence of El Niño and La Niña events, rather than water temperature.

Scientific Publication:

Skubel RA, Kirtman BP, Fallows C, Hammerschlag N (2018). Patterns of long-term climate variability and predation rates by a marine apex predator, the white shark Carcharodon carcharias. Marine Ecology Progress Series 587:129-139.

Figure   A year-long migration of a female tiger shark beginning in the Bahamas, travelling as far north as the state of Massachusetts. Point colors show water temperature sensed by the shark-borne satellite tag.(Figure via Rachel Skubel)

SRC In Focus

Understanding the relationship between sharks and water temperature is critical for predicting changes in their habitat.

We are investigating the capacity of tiger and great hammerhead sharks to withstand increased water temperatures.