Heupel, Michelle

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Growing up in Colorado, USA, Michelle Heupel never dreamed that one day she’d be living and working 9,000 miles away on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – but that’s exactly what happened.

“I didn’t actually see the ocean until I was fourteen-years-old,” she told the Oceanscape Network. “But once I did, I was just fascinated by it and I knew I wanted to spend my life studying and protecting it.”

After completing her undergraduate degree in Zoology at Colorado State University in 1994, Michelle applied to study in Australia for one semester but stayed on to obtain her doctorate in marine biology.

“I intended to go for just four months, and it turned into four years,” she laughed.

After receiving her Ph.D at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, she accepted a position at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida in 1999. There she spent nearly ten years researching the behavior of juvenile sharks in nursery habitats before returning to Australia to work for the “Australian Institute for Marine Science (AIMS)”: http://www.aims.gov.au and James Cook University, where she supervises and mentors postgraduate students.Today, Michelle is a Senior Research Scientist and Team Leader for Ecological and Biological Monitoring at AIMS and has pioneered studies on shark movement and migration.

“Sharks are fascinating because there are so many varieties of them. We get pygmy sharks which are only a few inches long all the way up to whale sharks which are the largest sharks in the world,” she said. “No matter how much you study them, there’s always more to learn.”

Michelle’s current projects examine the long-term residence and movement patterns of sharks and rays in coastal and reef ecosystems. Needless to say, tracking these animals in the open ocean can be a tricky process so Michelle employs some unique technology to assist her.

“What we do is implant transmitters in the abdomens of sharks on the Great Barrier Reef she explained. “Then we anchor receivers to certain places all around the reef and as a shark moves between receivers we’re able to track them remotely. It’s a much easier and more ef cient way of doing this than trying to follow a particular individual in a boat.”

This system also allows Michelle and her team to track multiple sharks at once for up to several years, giving them a complete picture of these animals’ movement patterns.

Because human beings have a huge, often devastating impact on sharks, part of Michelle’s research includes understanding how sharks use space in relation to human activities such as shing or recreational activities; or in response to environmental changes such as salinity, temperature or extreme weather events.

“Understanding how and why sharks and rays move from place to place will help us provide better tools for their management and conservation,” said Michelle. “It may also help us designate new protected areas for them where they don’t come into contact with fishing boats or other human activities.”

For more information about Michelle and her work, visit the AIMS website at aims.gov.aus.

Featured: Virtual Exploration: Tracking Sharks on the Great Barrier Reef

Download Michelle Heupel's Biography as a PDF