Grades 6-12

Genetics, forensics, environmental science

Teacher Resources

Wildlife Forensics is an activity developed by Learning Undefeated to help students explore forensic science and DNA analysis.

Shark fins are in incredible demand in Asia, costing hundreds of dollars a pound to be used in soups. In order to collect fins, poachers will catch sharks and de-fin them, often throwing the harmed sharks back into the water where they are unable to swim properly or survive. Due to the greatly dwindling shark populations, the U.S. government protects certain species, like the great white, and has made it illegal to hunt and trade them. Unfortunately, bringing those who illegally kill great white sharks to justice is not an easy task. It is often impossible to visually identify what species a shark fin belongs to, especially when the fins have been dried and processed.

In this lab, students will compare the DNA fragment(s) in a sample of DNA from a package of fins to great white and porbeagle shark DNA controls to determine if your unidentified fin is from a great white shark.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to

  • Students will analyze DNA extracted from unknown shark fins in order to determine if the fins were harvested from a protected species of shark.
  • Describe how the illegal shark trade is effecting the great white shark population
  • Classify a shark as a great white or not based upon the PCR results and gel electrophoresis
Standards Alignments + Connections

Next Generation Science Standards Connections

HS-LS1-1: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the structure of DNA determines the structure of proteins, which carry out the essential functions of life through systems of specialized cells.

HS-LS4-1: Communicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.

HS-LS4-5: Evaluate the evidence supporting claims that changes in environmental conditions may result in (1) increases in the number of individuals of some species, (2) the emergence of new species over time, and (3) the extinction of other species.

Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Science Connections

AQSC.12D: analyze and discuss how human activities such as fishing, transportation, dams, and recreation influence aquatic environments.

AQSC.12E: understand the impact of various laws and policies such as The Endangered Species Act, right of capture laws, or Clean Water Act on aquatic systems

BIOL.6A: recognize that components that make up the genetic code are common to all organisms.

BIOL.6B: recognize that components that make up the genetic code are common to all organisms

BIOL.7A: analyze and evaluate how evidence of common ancestry among groups is provided by the fossil record, biogeography, and homologies, including anatomical, molecular, and developmental

BIOL.12E: describe how environmental change can impact ecosystem stability.

E.4G: predict how species extinction may alter the food chain and affect existing populations in an ecosystem.

E.9K: analyze past and present local, state, and national legislation, including Texas automobile emissions regulations, the National Park Service Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Soil and Water Resources Conservation Act, and the Endangered Species Act

Virginia Science Standards of Learning

BIO.6A: organisms have structural and biochemical similarities and differences

BIO.8A: interactions within and among populations include carrying capacities, limiting factors, and growth curves

Activities to Gather Evidence

Pre-Laboratory Engagement

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973 by Congress in order to protect and recover species in danger of becoming extinct and their ecosystems.

Have students read about and discuss the evolution and implication of the ESA and how it affects wildlife, our economy, and other world factors.

Students can also engage in an activity about the politics and decision-making connected to endangered species with this activity:

Laboratory Activity

A high demand for shark fins, especially in the eastern part of the world, has resulted in the reduction of many shark populations. In response, the U.S. government has begun to protect the species of sharks that have become threatened due to over-fishing. Customs agents have received a package that contains dried fins from an unidentified species of shark. It is suspected that this package may have fins that belong to the great white, one of the U.S.’s protected species. You will need to use genetic analyses in order to determine if any of the confiscated fins were illegally obtained.

Dr. Mahmood Shivji, a conservation biologist, has devised a test that can rapidly identify a species of shark by using small fragments of the DNA in the shark fin and a technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). Technicians have already extracted DNA from the confiscated fins and have used the ribosomal DNA primer and the great white-specific DNA primer to amplify the corresponding DNA. As a technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Laboratory, it is your job to analyze these PCR results.

Post-Laboratory Extension

  • Draw a diagram illustrating the importance of great white sharks in the marine ecosystem
  • Support the connections between biotechnology and conservation efforts
  • Research different areas of the world and their conservation efforts, and discuss any differences and similarities

Additional Resources

US Fish and Wildlife Lab
Tour the lab, learn about evidence collection and preservation, read about US statutes and laws pertaining to wildlife, and much more

Shark Savers
Information on the shark’s role in the aquatic food chain

Dr. Mahmood Shivji
Learn about the man behind the method. Explore Dr. Shivji’s work and read the original peer reviewed article explaining the science behind the technique
Learn about an organization dedicated to ending the illegal wildlife trade. Explore volunteer and internship opportunities all over the country

PCR Tools
Animation of the PCR process
An interactive animation of PCR

Gel Electrophoresis Tool
Run a virtual gel electrophoresis