The Subtle Impacts of Tourist Provisioning on the Social Behavior of Tiger Sharks

Published on
03. September 2021

Social Network Analysis Reveals the Subtle Impacts of Tourist Provisioning on the Social Behavior of a Generalist Marine Apex Predator

Jacoby David M. P., Fairbairn Bethany S., Frazier Bryan S., Gallagher Austin J., Heithaus Michael R., Cooke Steven J., Hammerschlag Neil


Shark dive ecotourism is a lucrative industry in many regions around the globe. In some cases, sharks are provisioned using bait, prompting increased research on how baited dives influence shark behavior and yielding mixed results. Effects on patterns of habitat use and movement seemly vary across species and locations. It is unknown, however, whether wide-ranging, marine apex predators respond to provisioning by changing their patterns of grouping or social behavior. We applied a tiered analytical approach (aggregation-gregariousness-social preferences) examining the impact of provisioning on the putative social behavior of tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) at a dive tourism location in The Bahamas. Using network inference on three years of acoustic tracking data from 48 sharks, we tested for non-random social structure between non-provisioned and provisioned monitoring sites resulting in 12 distinct networks. Generally considered a solitary nomadic predator, we found evidence of sociality in tiger sharks, which varied spatiotemporally. We documented periods of both random (n = 7 networks) and non-random aggregation (n = 5 networks). Three of five non-random aggregations were at locations unimpacted by provisioning regardless of season, one occurred at an active provisioning site during the dry season and one at the same receivers during the wet season when provision activity is less prevalent. Aggregations lasted longer and occurred more frequently at provisioning sites, where gregariousness was also more variable. While differences in gregariousness among individuals was generally predictive of non-random network structure, individual site preferences, size and sex were not. Within five social preference networks, constructed using generalized affiliation indices, network density was lower at provisioning sites, indicating lower connectivity at these locations. We found no evidence of size assortment on preferences. Our data suggest that sociality may occur naturally within the Tiger Beach area, perhaps due to the unusually high density of individuals there. This study demonstrates the existence of periodic social behavior, but also considerable variation in association between tiger sharks, which we argue may help to mitigate any long-term impacts of provisioning on this population. Finally, we illustrate the utility of combining telemetry and social network approaches for assessing the impact of human disturbance on wildlife behavior.

Frontiers in Marine Science, Vol. 08 2021, DOI: 10.3389/fmars.2021.665726


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