Despite the resemblance in its name the whale shark isn’t a whale.
It’s also not part of the the marine mammal family.
The name whale shark comes from the fact that this species of shark can grow to be as large as some whale species.
It also happens to be a filter feeder, just like baleen whales.
When fully grown the whale shark can grow to lengths of 40 ft., although some researchers speculate that 40 ft. may be a conservative number.
Physical Characteristics and Appearance
As stated earlier the whale shark is the largest fish/shark in the world!
In fact if you exclude the cetacean species (whale, dolphins and porpoises) the whale shark is the largest living animal in existence, in regards to length.
The average male whale shark grows to just over 30 ft in length although there are reports of whale sharks growing well over 40 ft.
Unfortunately no official records exists to confirm lengths in excess of 40 ft.
These sharks have very wide mouths which can reach nearly 5 ft. wide and can contain up to 350 rows of teeth.
The head is flat and the eyes are located near the front of its head.
Unlike whales and other Cetacea the whale shark breathes through gills which allow it to extract oxygen from the water.
Whales on the other hand must come to the surface to breathe otherwise they would drown.
The whale shark has five large pairs of gills to pull oxygen out of the water.
Their skin is mostly a grayish color with a white under-body/belly.
The skin is also covered in pale yellow or white spots which are unique among each whale shark, just like fingerprints are unique to each human.
They have a pair of dorsal fins and pectoral fins which help them maintain stability in the water and provides better control when swimming.
Whale sharks aren’t active hunters like other species of shark which are known to chase, attack and tear their prey apart with their teeth.
Whale sharks are filter feeders meaning they consume food by swimming towards it with their mouth open engulfing the prey that enters their mouth.
Like most filter feeds these sharks typically have a diet consisting of small prey, and in the case of this shark their diet consists mainly of plankton, krill, shrimp, larvae and algae among other small lifeforms.
Whale sharks can be found traveling throughout all of the worlds warm and tropical oceans.
Every spring these sharks migrate toward the central west coast of Australia where they congregate for their seasonal feeding season.
The coral composition of the area’s Ningaloo Reef supplies the whale shark with a large abundance of plankton.
Unlike other species of shark the whale shark is not considered a threat to humans.
In fact they don’t even hunt marine mammals.
They are filter feeds and like most filter feeders their diets consists of very small prey, much smaller than humans.
In some cases the whale shark has even been said to be fairly friendly and playful with divers and may even let a diver hold on for a ride.
Although most don’t consider the whale shark to be dangerous scientists do warn to be careful around them and not provoke them with lots of physical contact.
While these sharks aren’t known to attack humans some speculate that a human could get caught in its large mouth, however even if this were to occur the throat of a whale shark is fairly small and it would be impossible for the shark to consume a person.
Unfortunately not much is known about the whale sharks reproduction and breeding habits.
What is known is that the whale shark is ovoviviparous meaning that the shark lays its eggs internally and carries them until birth occurs as compared to other shark and fish species that drop their eggs in the ocean.
Whale sharks may also be able to hold several hundred eggs at a time.
In fact in July 1996 a female whale shark was captured pregnant with 300 eggs.
Scientists speculate that the female whale shark gives birth to her children over a period of time (meaning the eggs hatch at different times) as opposed to all of the eggs hatching at the same time.
As you can imagine it would be quite difficult for a female whale shark to deal with 300 eggs all hatching at the same time.
The whale shark is known to face a number of threats that can affect its survival.
Some of the most common or proposed threats include habitat degradation or destruction, sound pollution, ship/boat collisions and migration interference
Habitat degradation or destruction can occur in areas where commercialization is occurring which often results in large construction operations that can harm the habitat of local marine life.
Water pollution and waste may also contribute to habitat degradation by polluting the water which can either directly impact the health of whale sharks or indirectly affect them through poisoning their food supply which they rely on for their survival.
While sharks do not use sound for communication they are able to detect the vibrations made by sound which can help them locate prey or nearby marine life.
The creation and distribution of loud artificial noises may interfere with the whale sharks ability to properly detect vibration signals.
This may lead to issues related to locating prey and migrating from one area to the next.
Commercialized zones that foster large numbers of boats/ships can increase the danger or likelihood of marine animals being struck by passing aquatic vehicles.
Commercial zones may include heavy fishing areas, transport routes and tourism destinations among others.
Migration interference has also been listed as a possible threat to the whale shark.
Interference may be caused by artificial sounds that can confuse the whale shark as they may rely on sound vibrations to understand their environment.
It can also be caused by habit degradation from construction work or expanding commercial projects.
The prevention of migration may create issues in whale shark habitat sustainability as being cut off from certain areas or other whale sharks can have adverse affects on reproduction and/or the population size of whale sharks in specific habitats.
10 Whale shark facts that may surprise you
- Because the whale shark is a fish it is cold-blooded, extracts oxygen from the water through gills and lays eggs as compared to marine mammals that are warm-blooded, breathe air, give birth and produce milk to feed their young.
- The scientific name for the whale shark is, “Rhincodon typus”.
- Despite being the largest known shark (and largest non cetacean animal) in the world these fish do not hunt marine mammals as they are slow and lack the teeth needed for tearing the flesh off of marine mammals.
- These fish are currently listed as a vulnerable species due to their small population size, however despite this they are still found being hunted in certain parts of the world.
- A fully grown whale shark can weigh more than three adult elephants.
- Over the course of a lifetime a whale shark can lay thousands of eggs.
- Although the whale shark is significantly larger than most animals in the ocean it does face occasional threats from other sharks and killer whales.
- A healthy whale shark is estimated to have a lifespan of up to 100 years.
- A large adult whale shark can grow to be about half the size of a fully grown blue whale.
- The skin of a whale shark can measure in at up to 4 inches thick.