The researchers claim that when it comes to survival-focused evolutionary development, epaulette sharks break all rules. However, more research is required to investigate further the factors affecting the walking and other unique talents of the epaulette sharks.
The study is published in the journal Integrative and Comparative Biology.
The epaulette shark, Hemiscyllium ocellatum, is a small, reef-dwelling, benthic shark that — using its paired fins — can walk, both in and out of water. Within the reef flats, this species experiences short periods of elevated CO2 and hypoxia as well as fluctuating temperatures as reef flats become isolated with the outgoing tide. Past studies have shown that this species is robust (ie, respiratory and metabolic performance, behavior) to climate change relevant elevated CO2 levels as well as to be hypoxia and anoxia tolerant. However, epaulette shark embryos reared under ocean warming conditions hatch earlier, smaller, with altered patterns and coloration, and with higher metabolic costs than their current-day counterparts. Findings to date suggest that this species has adaptations to tolerate some, but perhaps not all, of the challenging conditions predicted for the 21st century. As such, the epaulette shark is emerging as a model system to understand vertebrate physiology in changing oceans. Yet, few studies have investigated the kinematics of walking and swimming, which may be vital to their biological fitness, considering their habitat and propensity for challenging environmental conditions. Given that neonates retain embryonic nutrition via an internalized yolk sac, resulting in a bulbous abdomen, while juveniles actively forage for worms, crustaceans, and small fishes, we hypothesized that difference in body shape over early ontogeny would affect locomotor performance. To test this, we examined neonate and juvenile locomotor kinematics during the three aquatic gaits they utilize — slow-to-medium walking, fast-walking, and swimming — using 13 anatomical landmarks along the fins, girdles, and body midline. We found that differences in body shape did not alter kinematics between neonates and juveniles. Overall velocity, fin rotation, axial bending, and tail beat frequency and amplitude were consistent between early life stages. Data suggest that the locomotor kinematics are maintained between neonate and juvenile epaulette sharks, even as their feeding strategy changes. Studying epaulette shark locomotion allows us to understand this — and perhaps related — species’ ability to move within and away from challenging conditions in their habitats. Such locomotor traits may not only be key to survival, in general, as a small, benthic mesopredator (ie, movements required to maneuver into small reef crevices to avoid aerial and aquatic predators) but also may be related to their sustained physiological performance under challenging environmental conditions, including those associated with climate change — a topic worthy of future investigation.