WKU professors to discuss sharks on NOVA series

Mackenzie Mathews

Though the fear of sharks is not abnormal, it may be superfluous. WKU biology professor Steve Huskey has spent almost 20 years researching fish bites and made debunking the extreme fear of sharks a target.

“Our goal was to provide some scientific background to shark behaviors and their biting abilities to refute some of the misconceptions about why sharks occasionally bite people,” Huskey said.

He and engineering professor Chris Byrne will appear in an upcoming episode of NOVA titled “Why Sharks Attack.” The show will focus on falsifying myths surrounding sharks and their eating habits. One of which is whether sharks know or care what they are eating.

After 450 million years of evolution, sharks developed senses far greater than humans. This resulted in an ability for the fishes’ teeth to sensor the world around them, including their food, Huskey said.

“We [humans] immediately provide some feedback to the shark through their teeth that tells them this is not their typical prey,” he said. “They don’t like us.”

The professors’ were filmed testing the bite force of shark teeth on materials such as a surfboard, meat and a cow bone. The objective was to see how easy it was to press the teeth into the items, measuring how much force is needed for shark teeth to penetrate them.

Huskey is the expert on fish bites, and the anatomy and morphology behind it; while Byrne provided the laboratory and the expertise on testing materials for failure, the latter said.

“I think it’s fair to say he and I were amazed how easily the teeth glided through the composite on the surface of the surfboard,” Byrne said. “I was very surprised at the few pounds – maybe 50 – it took to penetrate that, and that’s just one tooth.”

Huskey has appeared on and hosted shows multiple times prior to NOVA. One of the producers of NOVA worked with him on a National Geographic show and contacted him for his fish bite expertise. 

Several producers came to WKU last July to film the tests in engineering labs. Huskey and Byrne mounted teeth from Great White, Bull and Tiger sharks and put them in a materials testing machine. The tests provided values of the amount of force it took for the teeth to puncture the materials.

Byrne also used a microscope to analyze the teeth, which showed serrations upon serrations along the edges. This makes the tooth like a sharp knife, and combined with a shark’s head slinging motion, it allows the teeth to saw through materials, Huskey said.

The force, however, is not to be compared with the shark’s senses surrounding his food. Great Whites, though they are not the number one human attacks, are especially feared due to their size and hunting methods.

“They’re just this image of death in oceans, when in reality there aren’t a whole lot of people that die annually from Great White attacks,” Huskey said.

Though this particular episode will only feature a segment of Huskey’s work, NOVA’s focus on science will allow him to use the show to educate the country.

“Hopefully we contributed in a way that helps people understand what sharks are all about and why they shouldn’t be persecuted like they are,” Huskey said.