A remnant of a 1994 shark encounter at a Florida beach solved a mystery at the University of Florida.
When a blister-like spot appeared on Jeff Weakley’s foot last year, he thought it was just a running injury. Then he felt something sharp.
A remnant of a long-ago encounter in Flagler Beach was working its way out of his foot. It would solve a 24-year-old mystery and notch up another success story for high-tech research at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
In 1994, Weakley was attending Stetson University in DeLand. A 21-year old senior and member of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, he drove over to Flagler Beach for a fraternity/sorority mixer. He was in the water paddling his surfboard when a shark bit him on the foot.
The bite fell across three of his toes, and a fourth toe, his smallest, was cut deep into the sole. He wound up with about 20-25 stitches, he said in an email interview. "It nipped some nerves," he said, but he didn't lose any muscle tissue.
Even though shark bites are uncommon in Flagler County, the male surfer fit the profile of most shark bite victims in Volusia County, known as the shark bite capital of the world.
And, like most local surfers who are bitten, Weakley wasn't deterred by his injury. He returned to the water a couple of weeks later, his foot encased in a waterproof bandage and bootie. Now the editor of Florida Sportsman magazine, Weakley lives in Jensen Beach and still loves to surf.
When he felt something sharp in the blister, he used a pair of tweezers and pulled out a little white shard: a piece of a tooth. Weakley said he “saved it for, I don’t know, maybe a weird charm?”
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Then he read an article about how researchers at the Florida Museum of Natural History were able to use DNA from a shark tooth taken from a bite victim near Fire Island, New York, last year to identify the species of shark.
Curious, he called the museum in Gainesville and talked with Gavin Naylor, director of the museum's Florida Program for Shark Research. Weakley asked if they could look at the tooth he'd found and tell what it was.
"Sure. When did you get bit?" Naylor remembers saying.
Weakley's response shocked him.
Highly skeptical that they would find any useful DNA, Naylor still agreed.
It’s strange how the human body can store and then eventually eject a foreign body, he said. But the idea that there could be any shark DNA left in that tooth in Weakley's foot was “really weird.”
When Naylor relayed the conversation to laboratory manager Lei Yang, he said Yang replied it was "ridiculous" and probably wouldn't work.
Naylor told Yang to just "go through the motions."
When the piece of tooth arrived, Naylor said the task seemed even more unlikely. It was "a tiny little shard of a tooth, about 2 millimeters long and a half a millimeter wide."
They dropped the shard into bleach to remove any superficial DNA, including Weakley's. Then they dug inside the piece of tooth, in the tip of the crown, to get DNA that hadn't been directly connected to Weakley's body.
"We proceeded as if there was tissue, even though we couldn't see anything," Naylor said. "We often work with components we can't see.
"We do get DNA out of bits of bone, even when they're thousands of years old," Naylor added. "But I would have thought in a live organism, a body with moisture and enzymes, there would have been no way the DNA could have persisted intact."
Eventually, Yang returned, telling Naylor: "You're not going to believe this."
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The DNA matched a sequence of a species often seen off Florida's Atlantic Coast: a blacktip shark.
About 80 shark bites occur around the world each year, including an average of eight in Volusia County over the past 10 years. About 70 percent of all the bites are caused by species that are never identified.
The university's work last year in sequencing DNA from a fragment of shark's tooth started when officials from Fire Island asked for help to identify the species of shark that might be responsible for two bites reported within about 20 minutes and a mile apart.
"People were instantly afraid it was a white shark and would be like 'Jaws,'" said Naylor, referring to the classic 1975 movie based on a Peter Benchley novel. "The local authorities were really keen to find out what it was."
If it was a great white they wanted to take precautionary measures, he said. "If it wasn't they didn't want people to be afraid."
Once that tooth fragment arrived in the lab, they were instantly able to rule out a great white, he said. "There were no serrations."
Ultimately, the DNA testing showed it was a sand tiger shark, he said. "They very infrequently bite people, and it's not usually in the surf zone."
It was the first time that a shark involved in a bite has been successfully identified using DNA. If the university could gather more precise data on the species involved, the researchers said the information might be able to help improve measures to prevent shark bites.
Weakley was not surprised by the answer to his question. After writing about the outdoors in Florida for years, he knew a blacktip was a likely suspect. In the end, his curiosity outweighed any reservations of spoiling a story nearly a quarter-century in the making.
"I was also a little bit hesitant to send the tooth in because, for a minute, I thought they would come back and tell me I’d been bitten by a mackerel or a houndfish – something really humiliating."
This story originally published to news-journalonline.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the GateHouse Media network.