Andrea Marshall, Part 1: Mantas and Other Megafauna

Category: General Article

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If you’re looking for an expert on Manta Rays, you may have to travel to the remote coastline of Mozambique, a small African country which borders the Indian Ocean. The waters here are the living laboratory of Dr. Andrea Marshall, one of the world’s foremost Manta ray researchers and founder of the Marine Megafauna Foundation.

Although most people have probably heard of rays, or even encountered them while at the beach or visiting aquariums, large Manta Rays (Manta birostris and Manta alfredi) are harder to locate. The Mozambique coast is one of the few places in the world where both species live year-round, making it the perfect location for Andrea’s research.

Video: Dr. Andrea Marshall, Giant Manta Ray Expert

“When you’re studying Manta Rays you have to get used to traveling and being in remote places,” she told the Oceanscape Network during a Skype interview from her home in South Africa. “Where I live, it is nine hours to the capital of Mozambique and twelve hours to where we do most of our shopping.”

Andrea’s fascination with the ocean extends back to her early childhood, but her work with rays didn’t begin until she was in college and realized that little to no research had been done on this megafauna species.

“What I love about working with a species that is under-studied is you can try all kinds of different scientific things,” she said. “I wear all kinds of hats. I’ve done taxonomy before, dabbled with describing a new species of manta… We do genetics work which was something that was really new to me too…”

But the area which really excites Andrea is behavioral biology, or the study of why an animal does what it does and what this indicates about its intelligence.

“Some of my favorite days are spent in the water playing with these animals,” she said, “and I can really use the word ‘play’ because it’s one of the few animals in the ocean that seems to want to engage with humans. They swim to you, not away from you, in order to have an encounter… I think that’s really exciting as a biologist to work with an animal that wants to work back with you.”

Although Andrea was initially alone in in her studies of Manta Rays, her research received some welcome publicity in 2010 when it became the focus of the BBC documentary, Andrea: Queen of the Mantas. The film highlighted Andrea’s remarkable photo identification system which uses markings on the rays’ skin to track individual animals. The system is similar to fingerprinting human beings as these patterns are completely unique. Although the computerized system helped Andrea monitor entire family groups off the African coast, she was still only capturing data on a small portion of the world’s Manta Rays. To get a true sense of how the animals were faring worldwide, she would need to think bigger!

Part 2: Citizens and the Scientist

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About The S.T.E.A.M. Powered Program

This multi-part series features five women who are at the tops of their fields in Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math. Over the 2015-16 school year, one week will be dedicated to each person, highlighting their education, careers and innovative contributions to their various disciplines — including the discovery of new species, the exploration of hostile ecosystems and the conservation of marine species.