2023 2023: SMAST PhD candidate Megan Winton '23 publishes groundbreaking study on white sharks

2023 2023: SMAST PhD candidate Megan Winton '23 publishes groundbreaking study on white sharks
SMAST PhD candidate Megan Winton '23 publishes groundbreaking study on white sharks

SMAST PhD candidate is published in Marine Ecology Progress Series and featured on National Geographic TV special "Return of the White Shark."

SMAST PhD student Megan Winton on a boat conducting research on Cape Cod
Photo credit: Atlantic White Shark Conservancy Board Member Ken Johnson

Megan Winton '23, PhD candidate at UMass Dartmouth's School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) and staff scientist at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC), is the lead author of a study on Cape Cod's great white shark population published Thursday, July 27 in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series.  

"One of the big questions we've been trying to answer since 2014 is how many white sharks are coming here every year," Winton said. Over the last decade, the presence of white sharks in the waters off Cape Cod has presented a public safety concern, as shark activity coincides with the booming summer tourist season.  

A team of scientists from AWSC, SMAST, and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) conducted an intensive mark-recapture survey off the coast of Cape Cod to estimate the size of the newest, and potentially the densest, white shark hotspot worldwide. The study has produced the first estimate of white shark abundance in the North Atlantic Ocean.  


“The study was truly a collaborative effort,” said Cynthia Wigren, CEO of the AWSC, a Cape Cod-based nonprofit that provided the majority of funding for the survey. “Our supporters and the local community dedicated a tremendous amount of time and resources to support this first-of-its-kind study in the North Atlantic." Researchers found that the number of white sharks visiting the site increased over the duration of the survey and estimated that approximately 800 individual white sharks visited the waters off of Cape Cod from 2015 to 2018.  "Cape Cod is the only area in the region where researchers can feasibly monitor the population, and our estimates suggest that the Cape is among the larger white shark hotspots worldwide, which is good news from a conservation standpoint," Winton noted.  

Winton's research was featured in Nat Geo TV's Sharkfest special "Return of the White Shark," which follows Winton and Dr. Greg Skomal, senior fisheries biologist at Massachusetts DMF and one of the leading shark researchers in the U.S., as they track, tag, and observe the population dynamics and predatory behavior of white sharks off the coast of Cape Cod. "We've found that white sharks are more intelligent, more social, and more numerous than previously known," Winton said.  Winton also appears in the HBO Max documentary "After the Bite" which explores how the Cape Cod community has been impacted by the increasing shark population, especially in the aftermath of a fatal attack in 2018.

The culmination of 8 years of field work and analysis, this study forms part of Winton’s PhD dissertation in Marine Sciences at SMAST, and was supported by a NOAA Fisheries Sea Grant Population and Ecosystem Dynamics Fellowship. 

"Megan’s research applies cutting-edge statistical modeling to synthesize multiple data sources," SMAST Professor Gavin Fay said.  “It’s a great example of how collaborative partnerships and multi-institutional investment in quantitative science and workforce development can help us understand topics of societal importance and concern."

Of her experience at SMAST, Winton says, "I had been working as a fisheries biologist in the area for a few years but realized I’d be a much better biologist with more formal quantitative training. I enrolled in this program specifically to work with Gavin at SMAST because he is a super sharp quantitative fisheries scientist, and I knew he could help me get to that next level. The PhD program (and this research project in particular) pushed me and improved my intuition in so many ways. SMAST’s community-oriented approach to marine science is very different from most places I have worked previously. I've found it makes my work much more rewarding to know that the work we're doing has a real impact on the community."

To learn more about Winton and her research, visit atlanticwhiteshark.org 

Megan Winton at her computer screen displaying an image of a great white shark
Winton uses sharks' distinctive markings and physical characteristics to identify individuals and compile them in a digital catalog.