Interview with Dr. Timothy Shank

by Ken Kostel

tim shank
Phil Forte (Alvin Pilot) and Tim Shank in Alvin.

So, what are you going to be doing on this cruise?
My role in this cruise is to look at the impact of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the benthic animals, in particular those animals that live on corals. Those include brittle stars, crabs, worms, shrimp—more than 20 species we’ve seen living on these corals. We want to know how far signs of damage from the oil might extend and at the same time, how bad the inferred damage is to each of the species. From our high-resolution imagery, we know that in most of the places we’ve been to the vast majority of these animals have no visible damage from the oil spill. But if you look at people walking around, you also don’t see, for example, physical damage from them breathing air pollution or drinking bad water or having a bad dinner. So it’s my feeling that we need to look at the cellular level or the molecular level for damage. I’ll be looking at the genetic damage that may have been inflicted on the animals that you don’t see readily.

I detect a little bit of an accent. Where are you from?
I’m from eastern North Carolina.

Near the coast?
I grew up an hour from the coast and spent a lot of my childhood on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. I even lifeguarded on the beach during summers in high school.

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Tim Shank tells us why corals are an important part of the deep sea.

What exactly do you study?
Well, I’m a deep-sea biologist. I work on communities—ecosystems—in the deep sea, how they came to be structured in various environments, how they develop over time, and the processes that create diversity in the deep sea. So, I study how they have evolved, the adaptations that allow them to thrive. In the Gulf of Mexico, I’m particularly interested in the processes that shape the composition and diversity of coral ecosystems, how the relationships between corals and the specific animals that live on them have evolved and are maintained. We now know that corals play a critical role in structuring deep ecosystems and communities. They provide substrate and habitat for thousands of animals around the world. That biodiversity is very important for the functioning of ecosystems.

Why is biodiversity in the deep sea important?
Biodiversity is extremely important in general because greater species diversity ensures natural sustainability for all life forms and creates greater productivity. Many people feel that diverse ecosystems can also better withstand and recover from a variety of disturbances. This is critically important to understand in the deep-sea right now because there number of threats to these ecosystems is growing rapidly, but we don’t really know how these ecosystems function, how their diversity is formed, what species exist in coral ecosystems, and even where they are located. We are just now learning what species are in the Gulf and how diverse they really are. And these coral ecosystems are important—they attract commercial stocks of fish and crabs. With regard to the current cruise and diversity, we don’t really know what would happen if we lost certain coral species or the animals that live as a result of some non-natural disturbance like an oil spill. Will we lose entire ecosystems? We know there are specific species of crabs, shrimp, worms, and brittle stars that live only on specific corals, and that these corals grow very slowly—tenths of a millimeter per year in some cases. If we disturb these corals, whether it’s through physically mowing them with fishing trawls or with waves of toxic substances in the water, we risk losing ecosystems that may take decades or more to recover.

How did you get into this line of study?
I’ve always stood in awe of life itself, even when I was a young kid reading biology books and walking on the beach. Being a biologist was pretty much decided early in my life. In college, my professor returned from an Alvin cruise where deep hydrocarbon seeps were first discovered. I remember that was the clencher. Shortly after, I told him, “I really want your job.” He said that the best way to achieve that is to gain expertise in another field, like genetics or diseases or something, and then apply it to marine biology. It’s some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

How many times have you been down in Alvin?
I’ve had more than 50 Alvin dives.

You’ve been down to the deep ocean that many times. Are you even surprised any more by what you find?
In short, yes. I’m more surprised if I don’t find something new on every dive. It’s a testament to how little we know about our deep sea.


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