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USM grad student tuned into guitarfish

Research provides the lifeblood at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast campus,...
Research provides the lifeblood at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast campus, including a Save Our Seas Foundation grant for research on the guitarfish native to the Gulf of Mexico and other waters.
Published: Apr. 10, 2022 at 4:40 PM CDT
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From University of Southern Mississippi Communications

LONG BEACH, Miss. (WDAM) - University of Southern Mississippi graduate student Bryan L. Huerta Beltrán hopes his research on guitarfish will strike just the right chord in grant funding provided by the Save our Seas Foundation.

Beltrán, a native of Mexico City, Mexico, is pursuing a master’s degree while working under the advisement of USM ecology and organismal Professor Nicole Phillips.

His research involves guitarfish from the genus Pseudobatos that are found in the Mexican Exclusive Economic Zone, which includes the Caribbean Sea, the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California, and the eastern Pacific Ocean.

Beltrán notes that currently eight of the nine described Pseudobatos guitarfishes in the world are recorded in the Mexican EEZ, but to date it is unknown which species are commonly traded at Mexican markets for a variety of purposes – such as for food consumption or medicinal purposes.

Complicating matters, identifying these guitarfish species by looking only at morphological characteristics can prove difficult because several guitarfish look alike. This is particularly challenging in countries like Mexico because multiple species can be found in one location.

“That’s where my work will come in handy because I’m building a genetic reference library of the eight guitarfish species found in Mexico to be able to reliably identify which species are traded at markets in Mexico,” said Beltrán. “Usually, guitarfishes are cut and modified removing unique morphological traits. Consequently, this makes them almost impossible to identify by only looking at morphological features.”

He points out that several guitarfishes found in Mexico are threatened with extinction, therefore, it is important to know which exact guitarfish species are being traded as each species can sustain different levels of fishing pressure depending upon their life history.

The guitarfish are a family of rays. They are known for an elongated body with a flattened head and trunk and small, ray-like wings. Beltrán says that his affinity for these sea creatures dates back to his childhood.

“Since I was a kid, I have always had an interest in wildlife, but particularly I have had a long-time passion for sharks, rays and skates, which are collectively called elasmobranchs,” he said. “What I particularly find interesting about guitarfishes is they blend characteristics of both sharks and rays, making them unique.

“They have a shark-like appearance and possess the iconic dorsal fins that are usually attributed to sharks but, in reality, they are rays. So, it’s almost like I get to study sharks and rays at the same time.”

The Save Our Seas Foundation is a philanthropic organization committed to protecting the world’s oceans.

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