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The whale shark can be easily identified by its titanic size and its distinctive coloration with patterns of light spots and stripes on a blue to gray background.
External claspers located on the far underside of the body - forward of the caudal fin - distinguish males.
Averages 4-12 m (13-39 ft.) in length; believed to reach a maximum size of 18 m (59 ft.)
Up to 11,800 kg (26,000 lb.)
Primarily plankton; occassionally small to medium-sized fish
Whale sharks are ovoviviparous ("egg live birth"). In this form of reproduction, the internally fertilized eggs are retained inside the female's body. The embryos develop in membranous "shells." They shed their membranes inside the female, who then gives birth to live offspring.
One egg recovered from a whale shark measured an astonishing 30 cm (12 in.) long, 14 cm (5.5 in.) wide, and 9 cm (3.5 in.) thick - making it the biggest egg of any animal ever recorded.
In tropical waters around the globe
Highly migratory; probably coincides with plankton blooms
Whale sharks are closely related to wobbegone, nurse, carpet, blind, bamboo, and zebra sharks. Sharks in this order have an anal fin, two dorsal fins, and a mouth located in front of their eyes.
The whale shark is the largest fish alive today.
Besides its size, the whale shark is also named for its feeding habits. Despite having teeth, the whale shark does not rely on its teeth to feed. Instead, it is a suction filter feeder - it sucks in a huge volume of water and plankton. The water is strained through spongy tissues supported by cartilaginous rods between the whale shark's gill arches. The plankton, trapped in the gill rakers, is then swallowed. Sometimes larger fishes - such as mackerels, anchovies, and tunas - are sucked in as well. A whale shark can filter 1.5 million liters (400,000 gallons) of water an hour when feeding.
For more information about sharks & rays, explore the
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ECOLOGY AND CONSERVATION
Whale sharks are of limited value to fishermen, although they are harpooned in countries such as Pakistan, India, China, and Senegal. Whale sharks are eaten by these people or used to treat boat hulls in Pakistan. These animals also face the threat of inadvertently being hit by boats as they feed. Whale sharks are protected against the threat of fishing in the southeastern waters of the United States.
Springer, V.G. and J.P. Gold.
Sharks in Question: The Smithsonian Answer Book
. Washington D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press. 1989.
Sharks: From Fear to Fascination
. SeaWorld education Department Publication. San Diego, SeaWorld, Inc. 1999.
flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/organizations/ssg/ssg.htm (IUCN Shark Specialist Group)