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Shark Tooth Weapons from the 19th Century Reflect Shifting Baselines in Central Pacific Predator Assemblies
Published: Wednesday, April 03, 2013
Author: Joshua Drew et al.

by Joshua Drew, Christopher Philipp, Mark W. Westneat

The reefs surrounding the Gilbert Islands (Republic of Kiribati, Central Pacific), like many throughout the world, have undergone a period of rapid and intensive environmental perturbation over the past 100 years. A byproduct of this perturbation has been a reduction of the number of shark species present in their waters, even though sharks play an important in the economy and culture of the Gilbertese. Here we examine how shark communities changed over time periods that predate the written record in order to understand the magnitude of ecosystem changes in the Central Pacific. Using a novel data source, the shark tooth weapons of the Gilbertese Islanders housed in natural history museums, we show that two species of shark, the Spot-tail (Carcharhinus sorrah) and the Dusky (C. obscurus), were present in the islands during the last half of the 19th century but not reported in any historical literature or contemporary ichthyological surveys of the region. Given the importance of these species to the ecology of the Gilbert Island reefs and to the culture of the Gilbertese people, documenting these shifts in baseline fauna represents an important step toward restoring the vivid splendor of both ecological and cultural diversity.
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