A shark’s tale

Christine Dudgeon is looking
after our oceans

Christine diving

Christine Dudgeon

For someone who suffers from sea sickness, Dr Christine Dudgeon sure spends a lot of time in the ocean swimming with sharks, grabbing their tails and snipping tissue samples.

“It does seem a bit nuts when I think about it!” Dr Dudgeon laughs.

Born in Bangkok and raised in Tokyo and Canberra, Dr Dudgeon’s curiosity for the marine world sprang from childhood summer holidays at the beach.

“It was my favourite time of year because I was so fascinated by animals and the ocean,” Dr Dudgeon says.

These days Dr Dudgeon, a Research Fellow in the Shark and Ray and Molecular Fisheries Laboratories at the UQ School of Biomedical Sciences, spends most of her time studying the ecology and evolution of marine animals.

Dr Dudgeon and her team have studied and named four new species of Epaulette sharks, known as ‘walking sharks’, and discovered a leopard shark that switches from sexual to asexual reproduction – only the second demonstration of this type in any vertebrate.

“This discovery has all sorts of implications for how animal species can perpetuate and start new populations,” Dr Dudgeon explains.

Walking shark

Walking shark

Walking shark

Dr Dudgeon’s interest in ocean predators erupted after watching a television show on Australian shark hunter Vic Hislop, where he explained that he killed sharks because they kill people.

“I didn’t fully understand that at the time, but I thought ‘it would make more sense if we just didn’t fish as much of their food’,” Dr Dudgeon recalls.

“Sharks and rays had a pretty bad reputation back then, and I felt it was unwarranted. They come in all shapes and sizes and very few species are dangerous to people.”

“My first motivation for becoming a marine scientist was to be a voice for these animals.”

After receiving her honours degree in marine science, zoology and molecular biology from James Cook University in Townsville, Dr Dudgeon moved to Brisbane to study leopard sharks as part of a PhD scholarship at The University of Queensland.

“UQ had a strong presence in tropical marine science and marine megafauna research, so I was excited to join the community” she says.

Tissue sampling

Tissue sampling

Tissue sampling

Dr Dudgeon gave birth to her eldest child while studying her PhD, and began a postdoctoral degree while caring for two young children at home.

“My graduation ceremony was supposed to be on the due date of my second child, but she came a week early!” Dr Dudgeon recounts.

Maintaining a career and being the primary carer of two kids has been challenging for Dr Dudgeon but she juggles this by focusing on her research at night.

“Having kids is amazing. They’re biology in action. They’re fun and fascinating and each stage is a new adventure,” Dr Dudgeon explains.

Dr Dudgeon draws her ‘can do’ attitude from her family, whom she describes as ‘incredibly strong’, especially after losing her mother to cancer when she was only 13 years old. This left her father to raise three children while maintaining a career in the Department of Foreign Affairs.

“It was extremely hard at the time, and it’s still raw 30 years later.”

“But my siblings and I have made the most of life. My sister is an architect and designer in New York, who loves scuba diving and mountain climbing. My brother is a Warrant Officer in the Air Force and used to be part of the Red Beret sky diving team. I’m the only one who hasn’t been sky diving!”

A multi-talented scientific researcher, Dr Dudgeon also plays the ukulele and had a short singing career.

“To celebrate the arrival of new koalas at Tokyo Zoo in 1984, Mum volunteered my brother, sister and I to be backup vocalists on a Heath Watts song called ‘Say Hello Koala Bear’. I’m not sure how many copies were sold, but we never got any royalties!” Dr Dudgeon laughs.

Dr Dudgeon (left) working in a laboratory

Dr Dudgeon (left) working in a laboratory

Dr Dudgeon (left) working in a laboratory

Dr Dudgeon’s husband, Thomas Suddendorf, has had a major influence on her research. As a UQ Professor in Psychology, he has been instrumental in opening Dr Dudgeon’s mind to broader scientific questions, particularly around evolutionary concepts.

“He’s made me try to understand how my research fits into the bigger picture,” Dr Dudgeon says.

Collaborating with researchers in Thailand and Indonesia, regions with high levels of marine exploitation, Dr Dudgeon hopes her research can inspire people to care more about the ocean.

“We need to look after our marine life, and the best way to do that is to learn more about it so we can appreciate it,” Dr Dudgeon says.

Learn more about Dr Dudgeon’s research.

Acoustic receiver

Acoustic receiver

Acoustic receiver

This story is featured in the Winter 2020 edition of UQmedicine Magazine. View the latest edition here. Or to listen, watch, or read more stories from UQ’s Faculty of Medicine, visit our blog, MayneStream.