NatGeo’s CAMO Sharks investigates how sharks change color while on the hunt.

The annual fete for sharks is here in all its glory compliments of the good people at National Geographic. In CAMO Sharks (premiers 7/11/2022), shark scientists Dr. Ryan Johnson and PhD Candidate Gibbs Kuguru investigate whether sharks can change color at will to enhance their predatory abilities? Through groundbreaking experiments, revered shark biologists answer this evolutionary question. They hope to capture real-time pigmentation changes to understand how these apex ocean predators manipulate their skin’s dermal cells to activate camouflage.

Ryan Johnson set aside a few minutes to discuss CAMO Sharks with SCINQ.

What was it that first brought you to sharks? How did you first get involved? What attracted you to them?

Well, I made a decision really early on – probably when I was about eight or 10 – that I wanted to be a marine biologist. I think that I probably wanted to concentrate on dolphins like a lot of people when I was younger. The shark opportunity really arose when I was here in South Africa in about 98. There were a heck of a lot of shark attacks from Great Whites on people, and the government was very worried that it would harm the tourism industry. So they put an ad out for two scientists to investigate it. I applied, presented some research ideas and got the position. 

I was in it for adventure and excitement work on the Great Whites like a lot of people. It was only during that first year of work that I became exposed to the fact that sharks were getting hunted at an unprecedented level and the populations were decreasing. Nobody really knew about it or cared about it except for very few shark nuts. Whilst always enjoying the adventure and excitement, because these animals are just so beautiful and charismatic, there’s definitely a deeper need that I have towards trying to do my bit to let them stay on the earth through research and conservation work.

What made you suspect sharks were able to alter their pigment? 

Well, I think it was, it was just spending years out on the sea with these great white sharks and a number of times, and I remember having discussions with colleagues a number of times I said that shark was light, and now I’m sure it’s changed color, but you always have in the back of your head, okay, maybe the cloud covers come over or something like this. I never really thought of it from a perspective of sort of the ecology and the evolution and the adaptability of a Great White Shark until I started chatting with Gibbs, about some work he was doing in the Maldives with sharks that were changing color and they think it was related to climate change. I said, Well, you know, great whites do this as well. I’m pretty sure about it. And we just got our heads going, thinking, thinking, thinking and work that man if we can show that great whites change color and that this is related to being able to adapt to different environments and be successful predators. That’d be a massive finding. And sort of just snowballed from that. Discussion.

How exactly is your color correction process?

I had started getting into video editing and documentaries a few years ago. So when I realized I had a ground truth, this and the color change. I went straight to Adobe Premiere and Adobe Photoshop and tried to work it out. I realized if I could get everything on one screen, a shark and the color board on one screen, and if I knew what true white was and knew a true black was, I would be able to adjust the colors. 

Essentially, I stick it on Adobe, I get a luminette tree and histogram scopes up where I can see very clearly the blues, the reds, the greens. I use the black and the white to adjust the exposure and the contrast and the grays. I actually use it to make sure the colors all match up between the blues, the reds and the greens. Nowadays, it takes about five minutes to color correct a photograph. 

The biggest issue I have is when the shark, particularly because I’m doing a lot of the stuff at the surface where there is a lot of glare, I want the sharks to break versus the surface. It’s really important to try to get them to break the surface. Otherwise, you get glare and a lot of stuff that I can’t get through. If I get a nice picture, it’s really quite straightforward.

The team gets ready for color testing with a remote control boat. (National Geographic/Fiona Ayerst)

When they breached the water, did that serve as some sort of baseline, color wise?

When they breach water when they’re beside the boat, you can actually lower them and you use the bait dash to get them to sort of half-lunge out of the water. You have to be really quick though with the new cameras. You just have to get that right photo when the shark is out of the water.

Making sure the colors are just right seems to be one of the stickier variables.

That was the biggest thing I was going to be criticized on. How do you know what this color is? So I knew that and I knew sticking it out on TV, there’d be a heck of a lot of people who had that question. That’s just the color or that’s just the clouds or that’s just the morning sunlight. I knew that I’d have that way that I could defend this. Are you prepared?

At what point during this project did you say “Okay, hold on a second. I think we really have something.”

For me, I was more interested in the color board. By the time we analyzed the color board it was later than when we did the genetic and the hormone stuff and looked at the confocal microscope. We always knew that it was going to be the confocal microscope and the ability to apply hormones and see the dispersal and concentration of pigments that was going to be the strongest science. That was going to be the moment when we knew we actually had something. 

Watching shows like CAMO Sharks, it’s really compelling. It’s cut in a way that really ups the excitement, but there’s also some really serious science going on at its core. How much preparation went on before production and how much science went on behind the scenes during production?

The process started at least a year before we started filming. From the outset, when I had approached National Geographic about this and when I paired up with Roller Coaster Road Productions. I told them straight up that I do not know if this works or not. This is not research that’s been done. This would be new research and National Geographic, I think because I’ve worked with them previously and just because they were fascinated, said we’re happy to take that risk which I think was very nice of them. They decided they were going to take that risk and let us go along. 

Gibbs, myself, and Roller Coaster Road Productions realized that we should try to do this as organically as possible. So whilst I did, I prepared all the equipment and we had some rough ideas taken with the color board and stuff was planned. 

We didn’t start the research until we started filming. I think that’s why we made quite a few mistakes, why we struggled. As I said, I was happy to show that because that is really part of science. 

We filmed over different periods over four or five months. We were working towards the goal of the confocal microscopes, of getting that, and also proving via color board. That’s where the documentary finished and we got the results. We proved it. Since then, we were going to have to publish our findings. For the last six or eight months we’ve been going out to sea and just collecting more and more data to get the replicates up to get to that stage where we can get a publication out of this.

So what was your final conclusion on behavior and appearance?

It’s not there yet. I’ve got indications. I’m pretty convinced that those breaching sharks, when they’re hunting just below the surface, go as dark as possible. When they go down deep and they are hunting they go lighter. But I’m not really there yet. We know it’s hormone and controlled. Great. But that step of taking it into the way it fits into the ecology and the behavior. I’m not quite there yet.

Have shark populations been affected by climate change at all? 

It’s I believe, distribution, very much. So.

In South Africa we are in an incredibly dynamic environment with our currents, water temperature. We’ve got massive currents that dominate our whole ecosystems. Over the last 10 years, we’ve seen those currents change. That has had massive impacts on where sharks turn up. 

Typically with great white, it’s very important because places that never had Great Whites before are suddenly getting them and local residents don’t know that they have to be aware when entering the water. I think that’s something that’s going to be throughout the world when sharks, particularly sharks that are dangerous to humans, turn up in places people aren’t expecting. 

There are going to be attacks and if we don’t control them, those attacks are going to get people’s backs up. Everybody who could love sharks is going to turn against them because nobody likes hearing about people getting bitten. I think it’s really, really going to have a big impact going forward as well.

IMAGE CREDIT: Fiona Ayerst.

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