Sharks & Rays
Worldwide in tropical latitudes
Coastal to open ocean (pelagic); sometimes aggregate around specific reefs or beaches
Class Chondrichthyes, Order Orectolobiformes (carpet sharks), Family Rhincodontidae (whale sharks)
Growing up to 40 feet long, or the size of a school bus, the whale shark is the largest fish in the world. These huge sharks are characterized by their broad and flattened heads as well as the unique “checkerboard” color pattern on their sides and back of light spots and stripes on a dark shade of gray, blue and brown. Whale sharks are highly migratory animals and are found through all tropical and warm temperate seas, apart from the Mediterranean.
Despite their large size, whale sharks are filter feeders and feed on tiny prey such as plankton, small crustaceans, and schooling fish. A five-foot wide mouth with filtering pads inside allows whale sharks to feed by sucking in mouthfuls of water and straining out the prey. While whale sharks are usually solitary animals, they will sometimes aggregate during feeding events such as fish spawning. Whale sharks are highly migratory, and it is thought that their movement is associated both with abundance of food in the area as well as breeding behaviors.
Scientists are still researching the life cycle of whale sharks, but it is believed that male whale sharks begin maturing around 17 years old and females around 19-22 years old. Females give birth to live pups, with litter sizes reportedly ranging to over 300 individuals. Whale shark pups are vulnerable to many predators including blue sharks and blue marlin when small, but once mature, whale sharks have few natural predators. However, the species is vulnerable to being caught as bycatch in nets as well as being fished for their meat and fins. The lack of enforcement of whale shark protection policies also contributes to the whale shark’s listing as endangered on the IUCN Red List.
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