September 10, 2014

Senior spends summer studying mega-sharks

by MARLEE MOORE & MARY CATHERINE GASTON

Riley with sharkRiley Shugg’s was an unusual summer study-abroad experience for an animal sciences major intent on becoming a large-animal veterinarian and surgeon. In fact, it was an unusual study-abroad experience, period—unless you consider getting up close and personal with great white sharks in the Indian Ocean a run-of-the-mill kind of job.

Shugg, a senior at Auburn University, spent most of July in a boat off the coast of Mossel Bay, South Africa, helping marine scientists with the organization Oceans Research gather data on the facial markings and behaviors of the great white. Oceans Research focuses on the biology and ecology of marine and terrestrial megafauna in southern Africa. Averaging 20 feet long and 7,000-plus pounds, the white shark definitely qualifies as megafauna.

The Africa adventure was actually the second of two international study tours that Shugg experienced over the summer. It came on the heels of a 13-day stint in Costa Rica, where she helped provide free veterinary services to domestic animals there. Study-abroad scholarship funds available through the College of Agriculture made both of her ventures financially possible.

By the time she left Costa Rica, Shugg had made up her mind that she would spend
her career living and working in a developing country. But then came South Africa and sharks.

A native of Flagler Beach, Florida, Shugg is no stranger to ocean waters. When she came to Auburn fall semester 2011, she so missed the coast that she added a minor in fisheries to her degree plans. She discovered the undergraduate opportunities available with Oceans Research through a Facebook post earlier this year.

At Oceans, her typical day was spent on a boat about 45 minutes offshore, throwing bait juice overboard to attract white sharks. When a shark neared their boat, the crewmates would tie the head of a tuna to a rope and cast the rope into the ocean to lure the giant fish even closer so they could observe and measure unique characteristics and how long the fish remained attracted to the bait.

She also was included in whale- and dolphin-spotting excursions and spent lab time studying the movement and behavior of smaller shark species. And just for fun, she went cage-diving with the white sharks.

“I have always been the kind of person who is interested in things that most people don’t give much thought to,” Shugg says. “I do have a passion for the ocean and aquatic animals, but, truthfully, I chose to work with the great whites because it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“Now that my work in South Africa has ended, I realize that I really do love sharks, and that I would love to work with them further down the line,” she says.

Shugg is on track to graduate in May 2015 with an animal sciences/pre-vet degree. She hopes then to attend the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which offers a specialization in aquatic animal medicine. And after her summer abroad, Shugg says what she wants to do after vet school is clearer than ever.

“I now realize that I want to live and practice veterinary medicine abroad and continue to help developing nations adopt better systems of animal health care,” she says.

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