GAINESVILLE (FloridaToday.com) – The jars of yellowish liquid stand in rows as if they were books on a library shelf. Some are the size of pill bottles, others as big as the tank of a water cooler. There are close to 220,000 of them.
They're titled: Galeocerdo cuvier. Carcharhinus limbautis. Carcharhinus brevipinna.
Their contents stare back.
George Burgess first walked into this library of fish and sharks 40 years ago as a graduate student at University of Florida. Now, at 64 years old, he's the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and the International Shark Attack File, which are both headquartered at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History.
The collection is one of the top 10 in North America based on its size and scientific importance and houses about 2.4 million specimens. Of those, 3,736 are fish and sharks that werecollected in Brevard County.
"Of course people ask why do you have so damn many fish?" Burgess said. "We need to document these critters for where they are at any given time. Another thing that's unfortunate in our world is that many of these environments are disappearing. We have collections from places that simply no longer exist, or have been deteriorated so badly they couldn't host those critters anymore."
Glass clinked as Burgess pulled down a juvenile nurse shark pickled in ethanol. The soft-spoken bear of a man, who looked like he would be more at home on a boat in his Sperry loafers and khakis, turned the jar in his hand admiring the "little cutie" inside.
Burgess loves all fish but it's sharks that have earned him an international reputation.
He's come a long way from a teen afraid to put his head in the water.
Files full of info
Burgess' phone starts ringing when he publishes a research paper or when a shark bites or attacks. Those incidents are monitored and studied in the International Shark Attack File, a digital and paper collection of records housed at the UF museum.
Five gray metal file cabinets hold thousands of files of medical records, victim interviews, and grisly photographs of shark-related wounds. Started in 1958 with Navy funding,the file moved around over the years before landing in Gainesville in 1988.
Originally created to try to develop a shark repellent for the Navy, it's been used in countless studies, many by Burgess. Shark biologists around the globe rely on the records.
The collection has helped bust myths about how often bites occur and their severity, and lead to better medical treatment for bite victims. The research staff currentlyis using the records to build a Shark-Induced Trauma scale, a 1-to-5 ranking (from a few tooth punctures to deadly) that will help medical providers and the public further understand that most bites are minor, Burgess said.
"So people will begin to understand Daytona Beach has a lot of 1s, whereas maybe South Africa has a lot of 4s," he said.
Burgess' fascination with the ocean's apex predators has continued for the four decades that he has studied sharks professionally. No matter how much research is done, he said, there is always more to learn.
Sharks are about 400 million years old and have been "fine-tuning an evolutionary plan that has helped them survive that long, and developed them into fine predators," he said. "That's largely built around their senses. They're basically swimming sensory machines."
He also credits "aha moments," like one that happened two weeks ago at a national conference of shark, skate and ray biologists in Tennessee. Another scientist presented a paper about a tagged and tracked porbeagleshark, an animal typically found in cooler waters, that had headed south.
"An animal that was thought to be a cool water (shark) of more limited distribution, and there with just one tag, immediately that theory could be thrown out because this guy went for a Caribbean vacation," Burgess said. "There are things we think we know, that we don't know."
Ample study opportunities have drawn dozens of students from the University of Florida to help maintain the shark attack file.
Lindsay French, a recent UF grad, and Monica Clerio, a 31-year-old U.S. Army veteran, are on the summer staff. A fascination with sharks has drawn classics majors and law students to these posts, too.
Clerio was terrified of the movie "Jaws" and planned to work with big cats, she said. While on a volunteer research trip in South Africa in 2008 she went cage diving with great whites, getting so close she could see the predator's teeth, and was captivated. Clerio is considering devoting her career to shark research.
"I still have a love for cats, but sharks are just very interesting," she said. "I feel like there is a lot to study still. There's a lot we don't know because there's so many species of sharks."
As a kid, Burgess would linger over undersea pictures of sharks in Jacques Cousteau's 1953 book "The Silent World." He was fascinated by the ocean's most "charismatic" predator. But he was scared of the water, because he had asthma and feared he could not breathe. His parents bought him a snorkel and mask, which opened up his world.
He began collecting specimens, pickling them in formaldehyde.
"I had jars in my bedroom, much to the chagrin of my mother," Burgess said. "You couldn't throw away a mayonnaise jar in my house. That was a specimen jar."
Burgess spent decades aboard boats for field work to study and tag sharks and rays and sawfish.
Has he ever been bitten?
"Only in the lab," he said.
Burgess' work has more recently focused on research and public education, which has meant he spends more time indoors.
His office is filled with overstuffed bookshelves that frame the tight cubby. These volumes are titled "Sixth Edition Names of Fishes" and "The Rise of Fishes." Two whiteboards track shark bites that have occurred in the past several years, and a couple of specimen jars are hoarded here, too.
Burgess will retire within a year and clean out his office, but he likely won't go anywhere. There's more to research, more hypotheses to test and shark myths to bust. More cases will need to be added to the International Shark Attack File.
"It's that old MacArthur thing about old soldiers never die, they just fade away," he said. "Well, old shark guys don't get out of the business. They just eventually fade away. I hope I won't be fading away for another decade or more."
History of the International Shark Attack File
• Started by the Office of Naval Research in 1958 to research sharks to try to develop a shark repellent for the Navy. It was the first attempt to document attacks occurring around the globe.
• Previously housed at the Smithsonian Institution, then moved to the University of Rhode Island when Navy funding ceased in 1968.
• First used in 1963 in an analysis called "Attacks by sharks as related to activities of man," which included a list of attacks.
• Moved to the Florida Museum of Natural History at University of Florida in 1988, retroactive tracking begins.
• Now maintained by the museum and American Elasmobranch Society, an association of people who study sharks, skates and rays.
• Contains records of more than 5,000 investigations of shark bites and shark attacks.
• Kept digitally, as well as paper files.