Shark expert, math professor use unique skills to set facts straight about the predators.
from USA Today
Ritter and Amin meet regularly to work on shark-focused research projects
The pair's latest research indicates sharks don't approach humans by chance but 'understand the direction a person is looking'
The researchers were the first team to pinpoint areas in Florida and California where the rate of shark attacks is high
An unlikely pair of Ph.Ds is teaming up to study what makes sharks tick and where they are likely to attack.
Internationally celebrated shark-human interaction scientist Erich Ritter and University of West Florida math and statistics professor Raid Amin often are found at a Pensacola, Fla., Panera Bread cafe plotting research methodologies aimed at dispelling or proving common folklore about the much maligned predators.
The popular restaurant is neutral ground between Ritter's risk-taking world in the oceans surrounded by sharks and Amin's preferably safer world on the third floor of UWF's Science, Math and Engineering building.
"Watch your back when in the water with sharks" is the take-home message of the duo's fifth and latest research project.
"The most important message is that sharks do not approach by chance but understand the direction a person is looking," Ritter said in an email interview while he was lecturing in Europe this week. "That gives them an important tool to approach the unfamiliar object — the person — without being seen."
The findings seem to prove what Ritter and his research divers with the Shark Research Institute have noticed for years.
"They approached us from behind. Our blind angle," said Ritter of Pensacola. "And we finally came to the point where we decided to actually test this observation."
It was an observation they already relied on while teaching swimmers or Pensacola Beach lifeguards how to protect themselves from shark attacks. But they wanted to prove it scientifically.
Two years ago, he turned to Amin for help. Ritter already worked with Amin and some of his graduate students on four other shark research projects. He considers Amin a "stats guru."
Statistical shark attacks
In a world where much shark research is based on observation, Ritter said his study could not be done without a statistician.
"Since I never tag any of the sharks I work with, some of the animals could come back repeatedly, which could have biased the collected data," he said. "Such pseudo-replication is statistically a huge challenge for which no model exists."
Amin developed models used to analyze videos of 312 encounters between reef sharks and divers during a two-week period in the waters of the Bahamas.
The test involved comparing the approach patterns of sharks to a single diver kneeling on the ocean floor with a control group of divers kneeling back-to-back. The majority of the time sharks preferred swimming outside the person's field of vision with the single diver.
"You can see over 80 percent of the sharks approach divers from the back," Amin said. "Somehow, the sharks can sense what the front is or the back is. We don't know how they sense that."
Future research they're already planning may reveal the "how."
Of all of the research projects Amin and Ritter authored papers on, this is the first one to be published by the prestigious international publisher of scientific journals, Springer.
Springer editors considered the research so groundbreaking, Amin said, they took the rare measure of sending a news release out to the world's media on the research after a story about it ran in the company's "Animal Cognition" publication in December.
Dozens of articles have appeared since, including one in the "The Economist."
"It's an honor," Amin said. "It's an amazing amount of publicity all over the world. And everyone sees the name of UWF and the research of its faculty. It's huge and rewarding."
The duo, as far as they know, are the only research team of its kind.
They were the first research team to pinpoint areas in Florida and California where the rate of shark attacks is high.
"For that purpose Dr. Amin came up with attack rates, a number that includes the number of bites per area, as well as the number of people going to the beach for the respective region," Ritter said. "Something nobody ever tried or did before. We are now in the process of trying to figure out what makes these areas so unique."
Amin, who still won't go in the Gulf even though he has learned so much about shark-human interaction, says he often finds himself explaining why he's conducting shark research to everyone who knows his work on studying cancer clusters.
It was that research methodology, using the geographic information system to manage data and spatial statistics, that Amin was able to apply to the shark attack clusters.
As Amin and Ritter continue their research on sharks, including figuring out if other shark species know the difference between the front and the back of humans, expect to see the researchers holding more coffee at Panera Bread.
"We sometimes just sit there and think of new projects, how to handle data and what kind of results we hope to get," Ritter said. "But even if there is no statistics challenge, he is an incredible sounding board and I have discussed many ideas with him on how to pursue."
One of Ritter's ideas Amin said he'll never agree to: "To go diving with sharks."
SOURCE: USA Today, January 17, 2014, http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/01/17/researchers-study-sharks-abilities-hot-spots/4569177/