Whale shark

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Scientific name

Rhincodon typus

Family

Rhincodontidae

Size

Up to 20 meters (65 feet)

Lifespan

80 to 120 years

Did you know?

Over 300 rows of tiny teeth can be found in whale shark mouths, although they are not used for biting or tearing, because whale sharks are filter feeders that feed on small prey items. The whale shark’s mouth is found near the front of its head instead of its underside like that of most other sharks.

About Whale sharks

Among the most iconic of sharks, the whale shark is the largest fish that exists today, with the biggest confirmed whale shark measuring 18.8 meters (62 feet) long. Whale sharks are the only member of the family Rhincodontidae, and are filter feeders that undertake seasonal migrations to areas of high concentrations of zooplankton, such as fish and invertebrate spawning events. While the sharks often swim mouth agape through dense plankton to capture food, some will hang vertically in the water column with their mouths open to create a vacuum. Despite their large size, most of the individuals seen at many of the well-known aggregation sites for the species are immature males. One of the biggest mysteries is where the pregnant females give birth, though there is some evidence that the Philippines may host a nursery ground. Because of their importance to local tourism economies, whale sharks are fully protected in Mexico, Belize, and Honduras. 

Diet

Whale sharks eat mainly zooplankton, such as krill, crab larvae, fish larvae, copepods, shrimp, fish eggs, and chaetognaths (pelagic worms). They will also feed on phytoplankton, such as algae and other plant matter, when their primary food items are unavailable.

Distribution

The whale shark is found worldwide through all tropical and warm temperate seas, apart from the Mediterranean. Though they appear to prefer surface waters between 21-24 degrees C, they make regular dives down to 1000 meters.

Fun facts

  • Individual whale sharks can be identified by their unique spot pattern.
  • Whale sharks have armored eyes. Their eyes are covered in the same types of scales (called dermal denticles) as their body, though they have a different shape.

Whale shark photo gallery

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