10 Facts About Whale Sharks, the Largest Shark Species

Whale sharks may not be the first species that comes to mind when you think of a shark. They are huge, graceful, and have beautiful coloration. They are not voracious predators, as they feed on some of the tiniest creatures in the ocean. Below are some fun facts about whale sharks.

01
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Whale Sharks Are the World's Largest Fish

Whale Shark with a school of Jacks

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One of the most notable facts about whale sharks is that they are the world's largest fish. At a maximum length of about 65 feet and weight of 75,000 pounds, a whale shark's size rivals that of large whales.

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Whale Sharks Feed on Some of the Ocean's Tiniest Creatures

Feeding Whale Shark
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Even though they are huge, whale sharks feed on tiny plankton, small fish, and crustaceans. They feed by gulping mouthfuls of water and forcing that water through their gills. Prey gets trapped in dermal denticles and a rake-like structure called the pharynx. This amazing creature can filter over 1,500 gallons of water an hour.

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Whale Sharks Are Cartilaginous Fish

The anatomy of a great white shark
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Whale sharks, and other elasmobranchs such as skates and rays, are cartilaginous fish. Instead of having a skeleton made of bone, they have a skeleton made of cartilage, a tough, flexible tissue. Since cartilage doesn't preserve as well as bone, much of what we know about early sharks comes from teeth, rather than fossilized bone.

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Female Whale Sharks Are Larger Than Males

Whale Shark
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Whale shark females are usually larger than males. This is true for most other sharks and also for baleen whales, another type of large sea animal that eats small organisms.

How can one tell male and female whale sharks apart? Like other shark species, males have a pair of appendages called claspers that are used to grasp the female and transfer sperm when mating. Females do not have claspers.

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Whale Sharks Are Found in Warm Waters Around the World

Whale shark feeding in Mexico
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The whale shark is a widespread species. They are found in the warmer waters of several oceans, including the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian.

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Whale Sharks Can Be Studied by Identifying Individuals

Whale shark
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Whale sharks have a beautiful coloration pattern, with a bluish-gray to brown back, and a white underside. This is an example of countershading ​and may be used for camouflage. They also have light vertical and horizontal striping on their sides and back, with white or cream-colored spots. These also may be used for camouflage. Each whale shark has a unique pattern of spots and stripes, enabling researchers to use photo-identification to study them. By taking photos of whale sharks (similar to the way whales are studied), scientists can catalog individuals based on their pattern and match subsequent sightings of whale sharks to the catalog.

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Whale Sharks Are Migratory

Two feeding whale sharks

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The movement of whale sharks was poorly understood until recent decades, when developments in tagging technology allowed scientists to tag whale sharks and observe their migrations.

We know now that whale sharks are capable of undertaking migrations thousands of miles long—one tagged shark traveled 8,000 miles over 37 months. Mexico appears to be a popular spot for the sharks—in 2009, a "swarm" of over 400 whale sharks was seen off Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

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You Could Swim With a Whale Shark

A freediver and a whale shark
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Because of their gentle nature, it is possible to swim, snorkel, and dive with whale sharks. Excursions where people can swim with whale sharks have been developed in Mexico, Australia, Honduras, and the Philippines

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Whale Sharks May Live for Over 100 Years

Baby Whale Shark
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There is still a lot to learn about the life cycle of a whale shark. Here is what we do know. Whale sharks are ovoviviparous—females lay eggs, but they develop inside her body. A study showed that it is possible for whale sharks to have several litters from one mating. Whale shark pups are about 2 feet long when born. Scientists are not sure how long whale sharks live, but based on their large size and their age at first reproduction (around 30 years old for males) it is thought that whale sharks may live at least 100–150 years.

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Whale Shark Populations Are Endangered

Whale sharks may be harvested for their fins
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The whale shark is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List. It is still hunted in some areas and its fins can be valuable in the shark finning trade. Since they are slow to grow and reproduce, populations may not recover quickly if this species is overfished.