Although its size makes it look imposing and mysterious, the whale shark is a very docile fish. Did you know that each whale shark has a unique mole pattern? There is never one like the other; it is like the fingerprint of this wild animal.
Physical Characteristics of the Whale Shark
Its scientific name is Rhincodon typus, but it is commonly referred to as a whale shark. It is so-called because of its vast physical resemblance to these magnificent creatures. Its belly is white, while its back is dark grey.
A very salient feature, and perhaps the largest of all, are its moles and white or yellowish lines that cover it above, which makes it easy to identify.
This wild animal of the ocean can measure 12 meters or even more; some stories say that specimens of up to 20 meters have been seen, but scientifically it is not proven. Its head is flat, and the size of the mouth can be 1.5 meters wide. Whale sharks weigh 21 tons. Also, they possess between 300 to 350 rows of small teeth.
These wild animals have 5 pairs of gills so that they can extract the oxygen present in the water; this happens thanks to the blood vessels they have.
Why are whale sharks in danger of extinction?
Unfortunately, whale sharks are in danger of extinction as they are hunted for their meat, which is in high demand in Asia. Besides that, their fins are used in a broth that categorizes aphrodisiac. Also, adding that, as their reproduction is late, it is tough to replace the dead specimens.
However, this species is protected by NOM – 050 – SEMARNAT – 2010. The interaction of these animals with humans is very peaceful. Many divers love to swim with them, as they have a very docile character.
Where do they live?
The whale shark likes the temperate waters of the tropical oceans. They feel comfortable and welcome in temperatures between 21 and 30 degrees Celsius. Whale sharks are not territorial animals, so they are free to swim as they please. However, of course, they will always look for places where there are food and the right temperature.
What does the whale shark eat?
Here is a very curious fact about this type of shark. We commonly know sharks for being excellent predators, and with their sharp teeth, they can tear their prey. However, this animal is very different. Its mode of feeding is by suction.
The whale shark goes to plankton or krill banks, which are its favorite foods, and opens its mouth by sucking as much food as possible. It also does the same with small species of crustaceans and fish. This is somewhat surprising, as its colossal size makes it look like a great hunter.
This animal will consume each day an amount of food equal to 2% of its body mass. However, it can also go some periods without eating, as it has an energy reserve system.
The Whale Shark’s Digestive System
The huge whale shark has a mouth of large dimensions, so much so that its mouth can reach approximately 1.5 meters wide, its jaw is sturdy and robust, and in it, we find a multitude of rows composed of small and sharp teeth.
However, the whale shark ingests its food in a similar way to baleen whales (such as the blue whale), since the multitude of teeth it has do not play a determining role in its diet.
The whale shark sucks a large amount of water and food by closing its mouth, and then the water is filtered through its gills and expelled. On the other hand, all the food that exceeds 3 millimeters in diameter, is trapped in its buccal cavity and later it is engulfed.
How do you hunt the whale shark?
The whale shark locates its food through olfactory signals; this is partly due to the tiny size of its eyes and the wrong location of these.
In order to ingest its food, the whale shark is in a vertical position, keeping its buccal cavity close to the surface. Instead of continually ingesting water, it is capable of pumping it through its gills, filtering, as we have mentioned before, the food.
How is it reproduced?
They reach sexual maturity at the age of 30, so their reproduction is very late and occasional. Previously it was thought that they are viviparous animals. Scientists concluded that they are oviparous. However, today, it is known that they reproduce oviparally, i.e., the female carries the eggs into her uterus, and then when fully developed hatch into the mother, with the offspring remaining there a while before birth.
However, because there is so little information about these fish, it is not known precisely how long the gestation period lasts. At birth, the small sharks are fully formed, but they are about 40 to 60 centimeters long, although newborn sharks have rarely been seen.
Do whale sharks have predators?
Because they are so big, they do not have a big list of predators. However, their natural threats are killer whales and other sharks, such as the white shark. It is not very good to defend themselves since they are very passive and have tiny teeth.
Despite this, we can say that their main threat is the human being, being unjustly hunted and aggressively on many continents.
Life span: How long do whale sharks live?
It is estimated that these beautiful animals can live between 60 and 100 years. According to some research, whale sharks have been present on earth for 60 million years, are the only remaining of the prehistoric family Rhincodontidae.
Are Whale Sharks Whales or Sharks?
Many people think that these animals, for having the denomination of whale shark, belong to the species of whales. So the answer is no. That name was given because of its similar appearance to these mammals, but they do not belong to the same family.
Sharks are fish, and whales are mammals because they suckle their young, which sharks do not do. Another characteristic that differentiates these species is that the whales breathe thanks to their lungs; the sharks obtain oxygen with the help of their gills.