|Abstract or Summary
- Differences in the chemical composition of calcified structures can be used to reveal natal origins, connectivity, metapopulation structure, and reconstruct the environmental history or movement patterns of many marine organisms. Sharks, skates, and rays (elasmobranchs) lack the calcified structures, known as otoliths, that are typically used for geochemical studies of dispersal and natal origin in fishes. If the incorporation of elements into shark and ray vertebrae is related to environmental conditions, the geochemical composition of cartilaginous vertebrae may also serve as natural tags and records of environmental history in elasmobranch populations. I used complementary laboratory and field studies to address several key assumptions regarding the incorporation of elements in elasmobranch vertebrae, providing the first detailed studies to assess relationships between water and vertebral chemical composition and the spatial and temporal variation of vertebral elemental signatures in this subclass of fishes. To validate the uptake and incorporation of elements from water to vertebrae, I conducted two laboratory studies using round stingrays, Urobatis halleri, as a model species. First, I examined the effects of temperature (16°, 18°, 24° C) on vertebral elemental incorporation (Li/Ca, Mg/Ca, Mn/Ca, Zn/Ca, Sr/Ca, Ba/Ca) and found that temperature had strong, negative effects on the uptake (measured as a partition coefficient, D[subscript Element]) of magnesium and Ba and positively influenced manganese incorporation. Second, I tested the relationship between water and vertebral elemental composition by manipulating dissolved barium (Ba) concentrations (1x, 3x, 6x ambient concentrations) and found significant differences among rays from each treament. I also evaluated the influence of natural variation in somatic growth and vertebral precipitation rates on elemental incorporation. Finally, I examined the accuracy of classifying individuals to known environmental histories (temperature and barium treatments) using vertebral elemental composition. There were no significant relationships between elemental incorporation and somatic growth or vertebral precipitation rates for any elements with the exception of Zn. Relationships between somatic growth rate and D[subscript Zn] were, however, inconsistent and inconclusive. Elemental variation of vertebrae reliably distinguished U. halleri based on temperature (85%) and [Ba] (96%) history. These results support the assumption that vertebral elemental composition reflects the environmental conditions during deposition and validates the use of vertebral elemental signatures as natural markers in an elasmobranch. To evaluate the utility of vertebral geochemistry as intrinsic markers of natal origin, I collected vertebrae of young-of-the-year scalloped hammerhead sharks (Sphyrna lewini) from artisanal fishery landings at six sites along the Pacific coast of Mexico and Costa Rica between 2007-2009. A total of 386 vertebrae were used to assess patterns of spatial and temporal variation in elemental composition using laser ablation-inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry. A protracted pupping period was confirmed for S. lewini, with newborn pups being recorded from May through mid-October. Natal elemental signatures detected in the vertebrae of the sharks varied significantly among sites and could be used to identify source populations. All element-to-calcium ratios included in these analyses (Li/Ca, Mg/Ca, V/Ca, Cr/Ca, Mn/Ca, Rb/Ca, Sr/Ca, Ba/Ca, Pb/Ca) were useful for the discerning natal origins of sharks; however, Ba, Sr, Mn, and Mg ratios most consistently generated the greatest discriminatory power based on step-wise discriminant function analyses. Classification accuracy to putative nursery areas (natal signature) and location of capture (edge signature) based on step-wise discriminant function analysis ranged from low (30-60%) to high (80-100%) depending on the degree of spatial and temporal resolution by which the data were filtered for analysis (e.g. pooled across months, early season, late season). All classification accuracies exceeded chance expectations and assignment to putative nursery areas and sites of capture were accomplished with up to 100% accuracy in several models. I found significant intra-annual differences in natal elemental signatures within the three primary study sites, which likely contributed to the low assignment accuracies when data were grouped across months of collection. Significant differences in natal elemental signatures were also detected across years. However, pair-wise analyses revealed that site-specific inter-annual variation was driven by differences associated with samples collected in 2009. Natal elemental signatures were similar between 2007 and 2009, indicating some consistency in site-specific vertebral chemistry across years. These results confirmed that vertebral elemental signatures can be applied to distinguish individuals across small (5s km), moderate (100s km), and large spatial scales (>1000 km). The potential for intra-annual variation in natal signatures within a year-class highlights the importance of cohort-specific analyses and the development of a spatial atlas of natal vertebral elemental signatures for studies of natal origin and population connectivity. The findings of my laboratory validation experiments and field study establish that geochemical analyses of vertebrae can provide reliable information on the spatial ecology and environmental history of shark and ray populations. The use of elemental signatures offers a new approach for the study and conservation of this historically vulnerable group of fishes.