Awe-Inspiring Facts About Whale Sharks

Interesting Facts about Whale Sharks
Whale sharks are the biggest fish on Earth. An interesting fact is that although the name mentions whale, they are not whales, but a species of shark. These and more such information about this elusive giant is shared in this Buzzle post.
Whale Shark Close Encounter
Two is company, three's a crowd.
Whale sharks often cruise in the company of remoras―marine fish with a flattened elongated body and a sucking disk on the head―which either actively swim with or suck themselves onto the whale shark.
Little is known about the history of a whale shark. Belonging to the group called Chondrichthyes, it is known to be the largest living fish on earth. However, despite its large size, it is completely harmless. The group also includes rays, skates, and sharks. In comparison to other fish skeletons that are composed of bone, the skeleton of whale sharks are made up entirely of cartilage. They are slow in their movement, a characteristic noticed in them, while in search for food on the water's surface. This makes them an easy prey to their predators, mainly humans. Here are a list of things that give you an insight into this huge and docile species.
Classification
Whale shark
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Chondrichthyes
  • Order: Orectolobiformes
  • Family: Rhincodontidae
  • Genus: Rhincodon
  • Species: Rhincodon typus
Appearance
Whale shark
Whale sharks are very big in size. Their length is between 20 to 32 feet, and they weigh more than 20 tons on an average. They have a white-colored belly, while the rest of their body is dark in color, that is brown or dark-gray. They are known to have big mouths. Their mouths can be as wide as 4 feet. Identifying them from the other sharks is very easy, as one has to just look at the placement of the mouth. Their mouth is located in the front portion of the head, while in the other species of sharks, it is located on the underside of the head. They have flat heads and a rounded snout. Their eyes are tiny and can be compared to the eyes of an elephant.

Unlike other species of fish, whale sharks have 5 big gill slits. The total number of fins is 4. They have 2 dorsal and 2 pectoral fins. The gill slits are used for breathing while resting on the floors of the sea, and they are located behind the eyes.

There is a peculiarity in the fins of these sharks. The upper fin of the tail is bigger than the lower fin.
Feeding Mechanism
Whale shark
They are well-known as 'filter feeding sharks'. Tropical climate and warm oceans are their homes. They filter tons of water and catch the small particles of food floating in it every hour. Whale sharks have as many as 3,000 tiny teeth in their mouths. However, these teeth are of almost no use.

They are filter feeders, and the food is sieved through the gills, rendering their teeth useless.
Diet
Plankton
They mainly feed on plankton, which are microscopic organisms that float freely in water. Plankton can either be tiny plants or tiny animals. They are normally seen feeding at dusk or after dark. They are able to sense plankton with the nostrils that are located on both sides of the upper jaw.

They also eat small squids, crab larvae, fish like krill, and other small vertebrates. They also consume larger fish like sardines or mackerels at times.
Reproduction
Whale sharks are probably the only species in the world that take a really long time to attain sexual maturity. They do not mature till they reach the age of 30 years. They are known to give birth via the method of ovoviviparity. However, the actual mating process is still not properly known.
Ovoviviparity means that the female gives birth to live young after the eggs have hatched inside her. Whale sharks are known to give birth to around 300 pups. These pups are 40 to 60 cm (15 to 24 inches) long at birth.

Studies show that the females do not give birth to all the pups at one time, but rather retain the sperm from the mating, and give birth over a longer period of time.
Habitat and Distribution
Whale sharks are known to lead a solitary life. They are very rarely seen in large groups. They live in tropical and warm, temperate zones. They prefer living closer to the surface of the sea as compared to the ocean beds. They are seen inhabiting deep as well as shallow coastal belts. They can also be seen in coral lagoons and reefs.
One area in the world where these sharks can be spotted is western Australia. If you want to spot them, then mid-March to mid-May is the best time to explore. They are often spotted in large numbers at locations where they feel food pulsations in close vicinity.

They have a very wide distribution and are found in many places in the world, some of them being Thailand, Philippines, Mexico, Honduras, South Africa, India, Japan, Maldives, etc.
Temperament
One of the most surprising facts about these gigantic sharks is that they are very timid and docile. They have never posed problems to divers. Rather, they display playful behavior with swimmers and divers. Very often, divers and snorkelers can swim along with whale sharks without any problem. The only threat can be when the divers and snorkelers are hit unintentionally with their fins.
Migratory Patterns
Whale sharks are migratory fish, and are capable of making journeys of thousands of miles. They prefer areas with warm water and temperature, and hence migrate to tropical areas in the spring season. They also find places with high concentrations of plankton.

The route of migration is normally through the island of Utila.
Conservation Status
Their biggest predators are human beings. Along with humans, other sharks and bigger whales are also their predators. The remains of smaller whale sharks were found in the stomach of these fish.

Whale sharks are facing extinction. Some countries like India and the Philippines have imposed a ban on their fishing, as well as the import and export of these animals. However, they are still fished around Taiwan and some other parts of Asia, where they are known as 'tofu fish'. Among others, the most important fact about whale sharks is that their conservation is of critical importance if they are to be saved from extinction in the near future.

They have been listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Fun Facts
Whale shark
✦ Whale sharks are massive creatures. The largest whale shark to have been recorded weighed 47,000 pounds and measured 41 feet long.

✦ The dot and stripe patterns on a whale shark's body are like human fingerprints. They are unique to each individual shark.

✦ Whale sharks have about 3,000 teeth set in 300 to 350 rows. However, these animals being filter feeders, the teeth are not of much use.
Whale shark
✦ They have very big mouths, almost 5 feet (1.5 meter) wide.

✦ Whale sharks live for 70 to 100 years, with some living for an even longer time.

✦ These species of fish are slow-moving. When they are moving in water, they have a speed of not more than 2 to 3 knots per hour.

✦ Female whale sharks are larger in size than the males.
Whale sharks are fascinating, beautiful, and docile creatures that do not really cause any harm to humans. More efforts should be made to stop these animals from being hunted, as the death of every whale shark is bringing the entire species one step closer to extinction.