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Whale Shark: How the Biggest Fish Looks and Where It Lives

This giant, slowly plowing the expanses of tropical waters, has long been the cause of many rumors and legends: frightened sailors described him in their stories as a horrible monster living in the ocean abyss. However, later it turned out that a lonely wanderer of the depths is not at all a terrible sea monster, but a huge whale shark, which to this day is the most mysterious fish on the planet.

Whale shark – the most mysterious shark in the world

This large shark hid from the eyes of researchers for a very long time, thus giving rise to the spread of various beliefs. And indeed, the private descriptions were so gloomy that they recognized anyone, but not ordinary fish.

The first official acquaintance with the whale shark held in 1828. It was a 4.5 meter long specimen, mined off the coast of South Africa by the popular English naturalist Andrew Smith.

It was he who first described the species, giving it the name Rhincodon types.

The whale shark is the largest representative of the family of sharks, surpassing the size of not only its closest relatives, but also all the other species of fish that exist today. It received the name “whale” not only because of its impressive body size, but also because of its peculiar way of feeding, as well as the jaw structure (all these signs make the fish look more like a whale than its shark relatives).

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It is difficult to confuse this inhabitant of the water world with its other representatives, since the whale shark looks very peculiar and, besides its large size, has a number of other characteristic features. The main external features of the form:

  1. Very powerful body with strong and thick skin, covered with small sharp scales. The skin on the belly is a little thinner than the rest of the body, so in the event of a threat the fish always instinctively hides its weak point and substitutes the most protected – the back.
  2. A relatively small and flat head, smoothly turning into a very flat face, ending in a very wide mouth (from 1.5 m wide). The mouth is located strictly in the middle of the snout (this feature radically distinguishes the whale shark from the rest of its relatives, whose mouth is located in the lower part of the muzzle).

The whale shark has a powerful body with thick skin

  • On the sides of the body behind the head there are five long gill slits that perform the functions of a kind of sieve through which water passes, as well as everything that the fish cannot swallow.
  • Deep-set and very small eyes (in the largest individual, their diameter is barely 5 cm) are located almost at the edges of the mouth. The fish is not endowed with blink membranes, nevertheless, in order to protect against external influence, the eyes can be drawn into orbit and closed with a thick skin fold.
  • The body behind the head has a maximum width, and then gradually narrows and becomes very narrow near the tail.
  • Two dorsal fins strongly shifted back. The first one is much larger and higher than the second one and has the shape of a regular triangle. The width of the caudal fin in a 12-meter individual can reach five meters, and the length of the pectoral fin — 2.5 m.
  • Even the largest individual has very small teeth (the length of each does not exceed 6 mm), but their number is incredibly large and can reach up to 15 thousand. The Latin name Rhincodon, which, in translation, sounds like “teeth grinding” is connected with this particular feature.
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    For many decades, it was officially believed that the maximum length of a whale shark was approximately 12.65 m. However, some unverified sources insisted that the fish may be of larger size. Nevertheless, scientists did not consider such information reliable and took as a basis the parameters of precisely registered individuals. But at the end of the twentieth century, new official data appeared on a specimen 20 meters long and weighing 34 tons.

    Since then, this figure is no longer a myth, but such giants are extremely rare today.

    Whale shark grows to 20 meters

    You can learn the shark and its very characteristic color. The sides and back of this fish usually have a dark gray background, on which the transverse and longitudinal narrow bands of a pale yellow or off-white color are arranged in a fairly correct order. Between the stripes are almost uniform rounded spots of the same shade.

    Pectoral fins and head have the same marks, but in these places they are smaller and scattered more densely and chaotically. The lower body is colored light gray.

    The skin of the trunk and fins have many peculiar scratches that form a characteristic pattern. Each individual is endowed with its own unique pattern, unchanging with the age according to which observers recognize it.

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    The favorite places of these giants are moderately warm and tropical waters of the oceans and seas, therefore the species most often occurs in areas where the temperature of the near-surface water layer is between 21 and 26 ° C. Scientists assume that such thermophilicity is associated not so much with physiological needs, as with the food preferences of the giant, because in places with its largest population, as a rule, mass assemblies of planktonic organisms, the main food of this fish, are found.

    Whale Shark Areas:

    1. Seychelles and Taiwan – they are present all year round near these islands, although the greatest concentration is observed in the summer and autumn periods.
    2. Regions adjacent to the southeast and east coast of the African continent. According to scientists, in the coastal areas of Mozambique, one fifth of the total population of the species lives.
    3. Small populations are also found in the waters of Australia, the Philippines, Chile and the Gulf of Mexico.

    The whale shark is not bloodthirsty

    Despite their belonging to the family of predators and a huge number of teeth, these fish are not at all bloodthirsty, and their diet mainly includes:

    • zooplankton;
    • small species of schooling fish, namely: anchovy, tuna, sardine and small mackerel.

    They do not need teeth to tear off the prey, but in order to prevent the latter from escaping from their huge mouth. In fact, these strong organs are given to the giant as a kind of “locks” for locking food.

    Like baleen whales, the shark slowly “grazes” in the ocean, straining plankton. To do this, it opens its mouth very widely, gathering a large amount of water into it, after which the huge mouth closes and the liquid exits through the gills, equipped with special filters. As a result, only those aquatic creatures that are able to squeeze into the extremely narrow esophagus (only 10 cm in diameter) of the giant remain in the mouth.

    Thus, in order to fully fill the whale shark eats throughout the whole day (about 8−9 hours per day), while passing through its mouth and gill slits up to 6 thousand cubic meters of water per hour.

    The whale shark mainly feeds on plankton.

    Observation of this huge fish has been going on for more than a century, but scientists still have very little information about its reproduction. First of all, it is known that she is ovoviviparous, that is, embryos develop in the womb in characteristic capsule eggs, after which they also hatch and then are born into the light.

    Newborn sharks have a length of about 0.5 meters and can go without food for quite a long time, since they still have enough domestic nutrient reserves in the womb. Proof of this is the case when a live and fully developed aquila was extracted from the belly of a caught shark.

    The baby was placed in an aquarium, where for the first two weeks he had eaten nothing at all, while he was alert and active.

    Studies of the late twentieth century also found that this representative of sharks goes through an extremely long process of puberty, which lasts up to 30-50 years. The full life of the species ranges from 70 to 100 years.

    There are unverified information even about 150-year-old individuals, but this has not been proven by science.

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    Most ichthyologists describe this fish as a leisurely and exceptionally calm creature. The species prefers warm near-surface water layers, however, if necessary, it can sink to a depth of 700 meters.

    The shark swims very slowly – about 5 km / h, and in most cases less. It is active during the whole day and sleeps in short intervals regardless of the day or night.

    Basically, these giants prefer to keep very small groups or even live alone. Extremely rarely form mass clusters, numbering several hundred individuals.

    Despite its huge size, the whale shark as a whole is considered absolutely safe for humans. This sluggish, inert and slow fish never attacked people, which many divers enjoyed with pleasure, not only closely approaching the giant, but also climbing up on his back.

    However, ichthyologists are not so careless and consider the whale shark as a potentially dangerous species, since a wounded individual can become enraged and not only damage the ship, but also kill a person with one small blow of its tail.

    Tiger shark is considered safe for humans.

    Whale sharks have never been a numerous species, but today there is evidence that only about a thousand individuals are left on the planet. To such a sad situation led massive commercial fishing, which is most developed in some regions of Asia, as well as in Taiwan and the Philippines, where the meat of this fish is very much appreciated.

    In addition to the main enemy – man, the whale shark has enemies among its kindreds. Mostly predators such as the blue shark and the marlin attempt upon it. Often they are joined by the killer whale.

    In most cases, young individuals become victims, but there are also attacks on adult whale sharks. This is due to the absolute defenselessness of the fish, because the impressive size and thick skin can not always save from the enemy, and this giant has no other means of defense.

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