Note – published in Oct 2020 but backdated for sequencing purposes.
Blue Resources Trust (BRT) is a marine research and conservation organization based in Sri Lanka. As part of encouraging the next generation of researchers, BRT offers scholarships for Sri Lankan students carrying out their undergraduate or graduate dissertation research in the marine field. The Marine Conservation and Action Fund (MCAF) at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life has helped support the BRT elasmobranch project since 2012. This year MCAF is helping ensure that we can keep our field station open and continue running the BRT scholarship-internship program. The following is a blog written in English and Sinhala by a scholarship recipient, Gayathra Bandara (and translated into Tamil by Rifdha Rizwan, one of our previous scholarship recipients):
By Gayathra Bandara
I always wanted to study animals and help conserve them because it feels like I should do something in return for their unconditional love. Throughout my lifetime I worked with school environmental societies, several leading non-governmental organizations, and government institutions that are trying to ensure the safety of animals.
I still remember the day I first looked below the ocean surface. Beautiful schools of fish, corals and other animals were everywhere. I saw something like living in heaven at that moment. I put my head above water just to see whether there was any difference. No, actually it was the same calm waves. I looked below again because I had only a few minutes to be there as at that time, Trincomalee was in the center of the civil war. I was surprised by the world underwater and that is the day that I decided to study about that awesome world. So after my school, I went to the Ocean University of Sri Lanka to study my passion: marine biology.
It was at this time that one of my seniors, Mrs. Buddhi Maheshika, told me about an organization called Blue Resources Trust (BRT) which works toward elasmobranch conservation. So I looked up facts about it and discovered that they are also working on endangered rays found in Sri Lanka. So I decided to apply and I received a scholarship to work on an ageing project focusing on the under-studied guitarfish species, Acroteriobatus variegatus. This research is one of the first age-growth studies for elasmobranchs in Sri Lanka and the first for this species.
I wake up early every morning and cycle through beautiful roads in the eastern part of Sri Lanka towards the fishery harbor and other landing sites to find this guitarfish. I also record every elasmobranch species landed for a separate study by BRT that contributes toward expanding knowledge on all sharks and rays in Sri Lanka. Whenever I come across the guitarfish I study, I collect and bring them to the BRT field station to analyze them. After that I’m recording the biological and meristic data, such as length measurements, weight, sex, and maturity of each. Then I start cutting them. First I carefully take the gut and stomach and preserve them in case someone wants to study them in the future. Then I take the whole vertebrate out and start cleaning it. I keep the unwanted parts of the ray in a garbage bag and put it in the freezer in the hope of giving it back to the fishers another day so they can use it for fish bait. After that I divide the vertebrae into three equal parts and label them. Then I cut the small vertebrae segments and store them. After this, I fix each tiny segment of vertebrae into a resin and then slice them using a low speed saw. Once this is done, I place each sliced section on a slide and take pictures using a dissecting microscope. Finally I count the growth rings, which are just like growth rings found in trees, and analyze the data with a statistical test.
Beautiful beaches in Eastern Sri Lanka.
ශ්රී ලංකාවේ නැගෙනහිර කොටසේ පිහිටා ඇති එක් සුන්දර වෙරළ තීරයක්.
கிழக்கு இலங்கையில் அழகான கடற்கரைகள்
Typical morning at Kayenkerni landing site.
කායන්කර්නී තොටුපලේ තවත් එක් උදෑසනක්.
காயன்கெர்னி தரையிறங்கும் தளத்தில் வழக்கமான காலை
As studies on elasmobranchs are relatively rare in Sri Lanka, I hope this study will contribute toward the evaluation of the current status of elasmobranchs and make new data available for the conservation of these endangered animals. I’m also hoping to continue in this field and build up my skills further as an elasmobranch scientist and to become a voice for this voiceless species.