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Scientific Name: Rhiniodon typus
The whale shark is a the biggest shark and the biggest fish. It is NOT a whale. It has a huge mouth, which can be up to 4 feet (1.4 m) wide. Its mouth is at the very front of its head (not on the underside of the head like in most sharks). It has a wide, flat head, a rounded snout, small eyes, 5 very large gill slits, 2 dorsal fins (on its back) and 2 pectoral fins (on its sides). The spiracle (a vestigial first gill slit used for breathing when the shark is resting on the sea floor) is located just behind the shark's eye. Its tail has a top fin much larger than the lower fin.
The whale shark has distinctive light-yellow markings (random stripes and dots) on its very thick dark gray skin. Its skin is up to 4 inches (10 cm) thick. There are three prominent ridges running along each side of the shark's body. Whale sharks have about 3,000 very tiny teeth but they are of little use. Whale sharks are filter feeders who sieve their tiny food through their large gills.
Whale sharks are solitary creatures. Groups of whale sharks have only rarely been seen.
Whale sharks live in warm water (near the equator) both along the coast and in the open seas. They spend most of their time near the surface. Whale sharks are found worldwide in the warm oceans from the equator to about ±30-40° latitude. They are not, however, found in the Mediterranean Sea.
The largest of all sharks, infact of all fishes, it ironically feeds on the smallest of beings underwater. The whale shark is a filter feeder that sieves small animals from the water. As it swims with its mouth open, it sucks masses of water filled with prey into its mouth and through spongy tissue between its 5 large gill arches. After closing its mouth, the shark uses gills rakers that filter the nourishment from the water. Anything that doesn't pass through the gills is eaten. Gill rakers are bristly structures (the thousands of bristles are about 4 inches or 10 cm long) in the shark's mouth that trap the small organisms which the shark then swallows. The water is expelled through the sharks 5 pairs of gill slits. The prey includes plankton, krill, small fish, and squid. The shark can process over 1500 gallons (6000 liters) of water each hour.
Whale sharks are slow swimmers, going no more than 3 mph (5 kph). They swim by moving their entire bodies from side to side (not just their tails, like some other sharks do).
The Whale shark was long thought to be oviparous [an egg 14 inches (36 cm) long was found in the Gulf of Mexico in 1953; this would be the largest egg in the world]. Recently, pregnant females have been found containing hundreds of pups, so, Whale sharks are viviparous, giving birth to live young. Newborns are over 2 feet (60 cm) long. Whale sharks are sexually mature at 30 years old. This is the age at which they are able to mate and reproduce.
These gigantic creatures of water are harmless to human beings and indifferent to divers. No attacks by whale sharks have been recorded so far, and divers have easily captured images underwater while swimming with them.
It has been estimated that whale sharks may live up to 100 - 150 years. Sharks can be aged by counting the growth rings on their vertebrae.
Statistics: The whale shark is the largest fish in the world. The maximum (published) records for its size are 20m (60ft) in length and a weight of 34,000kg (75,000lbs). More typically, they average 7-10m (23-33ft).
Whale Shark Classification:
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