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Whale shark

Scientific Name - Rhincodon typus

The whale shark is a the biggest shark and the biggest fish. It is NOT a whale. It has a huge mouth which can be up to 4 feet (1.4 m) wide. Its mouth is at the very front of its head (not on the underside of the head like in most sharks). It has a wide, flat head, a rounded snout, small eyes, 5 very large gill slits, 2 dorsal fins and 2 pectoral fins (on its sides). The shark has distinctive light-yellow markings (stripes and dots) on its very thick dark grey skin. Its skin is up to 4 inches (10 cm) thick. There are three prominent ridges running along each side of the shark's body. This enormous shark is a filter feeder and sieves enormous amounts of plankton to eat through its gills as it swims.

Scientific Classification

  • Order: Orectolobiformes
  • Family: Rhincodontidae
  • Genus: Rhincodon
  • Species: typus
  • Scientific Name: Rhincodon typus

Life Expectancy

It has been estimated that whale sharks may live up to 100 - 150 years.

Dangerous to Man?

Generally considered harmless. However, there have been a few cases of whale sharks butting sportfishing boats, possibly after being provoked. Usually the sharks are more at risk from being struck accidentally by vessels whilst basking or feeding on the surface.

Conservation Status

Some biological characteristics, such as large size, slow growth, late maturation and extended longevity, probably limit recruitment and make whale sharks susceptible to overexploitation. These characteristics also suggest that populations are slow to recover from any overfishing. The whale shark is listed as "Vulnerable" by the IUCN.

Size

The whale shark is up to 46 feet (14 m). The average size is 25 feet (7.6 m) long. It is the largest fish in the world. Females are larger than males (like most sharks).

 
Reproduction

The Whale shark was thought to be oviparous (an egg 36 cm long was found in 1953; the largest egg in the world). Recently, pregnant females were found containing hundreds of pups, so they are viviparous, giving birth to live young, which are over 60 cm long.

Diet

The whale shark is a filter feeder that sieves small animals from the water. As it swims with its mouth open, it sucks masses of water filled with prey into its mouth and through spongy tissue between its 5 large gill arches. After closing its mouth, the shark uses gills rakers that filter the nourishment from the water. Anything that doesn't pass through the gills is eaten. Gill rakers are bristly structures (the thousands of bristles are about 4 inches or 10 cm long) in the shark's mouth. The water is expelled through the sharks 5 pairs of gill slits. The prey includes plankton, krill, small fish (tuna, mackerel), and squid. The shark can process over 1500 gallons (6000 liters) of water each hour.
 
Other Names

sunfish, bone shark, elephant shark,sailfish shark, big mouth shark

Speed

Whale sharks are slow swimmers, going no more than 3 mph (5 kph). They swim by moving their entire bodies from side to side (not just their tails, like other sharks do).

Weight

The whale shark weighs up to 15 tons!

Population

Unknown, although the whale shark population is falling by approximately 40 percent over the past decade in Western Australian waters.

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