Her underwater encounters with marine life are viral sensations that put the global spotlight on the need to protect Australia’s Great Barrier Reef – and now University of the Sunshine Coast graduate Jacinta Shackleton hopes her research can do the same.
The popular Instagrammer recently graduated from UniSC with first-class honours after completing research into one of the Great Barrier Reef’s more unusual sea creatures, the ‘walking’ epaulette shark.
“My UniSC research was really the perfect combination of my passion for underwater photography, my role as a master reef guide and storyteller on Lady Elliot Island, and my commitment to marine conservation,” Jacinta said.
“I’ve snorkelled with tiger sharks, mating turtles, feeding sharks and I’ve been lucky enough to also capture on camera elusive species like the Ornate Eagle Ray and the Smalleye stingray – the largest and rarest in the world," she said.
“Posting my images on social media allows me to capture their different personalities and give people around the world the chance to also experience seeing these amazing creatures in their underwater environment.
“It is the perfect platform to reach, inspire and educate people about why caring and protecting the Great Barrier Reef is so vital.”
Along with her 200,000 plus Instagram followers, Jacinta’s images and videos are also shared by Tourism and Events Queensland who have engaged as an official “Queensland Creator” to capture inspiring and authentic content to inspire people to travel.
A recent once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a rainbow-coloured female blanket octopus while snorkelling off Lady Elliot Island was featured by Tourism Australia, the Discovery Channel, BBC Earth, CNN and several other national and global media outlets.
Now by contributing to marine research, Jacinta hopes to further expand people’s understanding of the need to protect and conserve reef species.
Her honours research investigated the range and genetics of epaulette sharks (Hemiscyllium ocellatum), a reef species found on the Great Barrier Reef that has the rare adaptive ability to survive low oxygen conditions by switching off non-essential brain functions.
“Before starting this research, I would spend hours and hours at low tide on Lady Elliot Island photographing these beautiful, interesting creatures that can stay out of water for two hours and walk on their fins,” Jacinta said.
“As the climate is changing, research into ray, shark and skate species with adaptive abilities, like the epaulette shark, is going to become more and more important.”
Using photography, she studied the differences in spot patterns of individuals sharks, and genetic analysis to fill in gaps in knowledge about their population structure and distribution.
“These insights can now be used to better inform management and conservation and serve as a precursor for current and future studies within this genus.”
Jacinta completed Honours at UniSC’s Fraser Coast under the supervision of UniSC Associate Professor Kathy Townsend and Dr Chris Dudgeon, who she said inspired her to return to study as a stepping stone to a career as a marine researcher.
She was working as a reef interpreter and storyteller on Lady Elliot Island when she witnessed the researchers mapping the island's biodiversity as a baseline to measure the impact of a changing climate on marine life in the Great Barrier Reef.
“I knew then I wanted to learn from some of the best scientists in the world and devote my time to understanding more about marine life as much as possible,” Jacinta said.
Associate Professor Townsend said Jacinta’s research is cutting-edge as it combined algorithm-supported pattern recognition with population genetics.
“As an avid photographer and observer of nature, Jacinta had noticed that epaulette sharks from Lady Elliot had different spot patterns from those of the Whitsundays,” she said.
“This casual observation was the basis of her research study which showed that there are several distinct populations of these walking sharks along the Queensland coastline, with the population at Lady Elliot being unique.”
Several local research projects with global impact are being undertaken by academics, honours and PhD at UniSC’s Fraser Coast campus, including pioneering research into marine plastics, turtle health, humpback whales and hammerhead sharks.
More information on opportunities for higher degree by research with UniSC is available at www.usc.edu.au/research
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