Whale sharks, or Rhincodon typus, are some of the largest and most majestic creatures in the ocean. However, despite the fascination people feel toward these sharks, for many years, little was actually known about them. Today, more information is available, but there are still many mysteries to uncover. Ecotourism for whale sharks has increased dramatically in the last few years, which is positive in that awareness of these gentle giants is increasing, as well as the opportunity for researchers to tag and study them without disrupting their lives. Here are 5 facts about whale sharks that science has gathered thus far.
Not Whales at All
Whale sharks are not actually whales. They are a type of shark, which is a type of fish. As you can see in the photo above, they have a distinct shark profile, just like their other shark cousins. However, unlike most sharks, Rhincodon typus is a peaceful species. Instead of eating large fish, they eat plankton, algae and other tiny forms of ocean life. The shark feeds by opening its mouth and swimming forward, pumping water in. Filter pads in the mouth then separate the food from the water, and the water is pushed out through the gills.
Biggest Fish in the Ocean
These sharks are often known for their massive size, and are some of the largest creatures on earth, as you can see based on the scale in this photo. In fact, whale sharks are the largest non-mammalian creature. These sharks can grow to about 32 feet long, although larger specimens sometimes grow to 40 feet or more. Generally, they weigh about 20,000 pounds, but can weigh up to twice as much.
Whale sharks live in warm or even tropical climates. For this reason, these sharks are almost always spotted near the central regions of the world, and do not venture too far north or south. These sharks often swim near coastal areas, where the feeding is the richest. They are migratory, and will move from place to place in search of food.
It is thought that whale sharks are born live, instead of in eggs. However, much about the reproduction of these sharks is still unknown. It’s also presumed that, when born, the sharks are tiny, and take many years to grow into their full size. They are considered mature at about 30 years old, but can live for up to 70 years, possibly even longer.
Vulnerable to Extinction
These sharks are not endangered, but they are considered vulnerable, due to the fact that they are a prized cuisine item in some parts of the world. Fortunately, many countries have now limited or banned the fishing of these sharks, which will hopefully allow their populations to recover.