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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Creature Feature: Whale Shark.

If we said that today's entry was a giant shark, many of you would flip your lid. After all, there is no "extinct" tag down at the bottom of this post. The idea of a shark over 12 meters (41 feet) in length sends most people screaming from the beaches.


Get outta the water! IT HAS SCIENCE IN IT!

Actually, today's shark is a perfectly docile creature, just like many, many other sharks in the sea.



Not all sharks are Jaws; the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) has diminished teeth in favor of filter feeding. The only thing these sharks attack are giant clouds of zooplankton (a fancy word for very, very small animals). It looks like a whale and eats like a whale, but that is definitely a shark. It is perfectly friendly towards humans; good thing, seeing as we all love to watch these leviathans swim! 

Reports of exactly how big the whale shark gets are often exaggerated. There have been reports of whale sharks up to 75 feet/23 meters. These are as valid as giant anaconda stories (i.e. "pics or it didn't happen").  The length stated earlier - approximately 41 feet or 12 meters - is as long as science has been able to confirm. If someone finds a bigger one, show us and we will gladly update our records; there's a good chance we might be wrong.

As menacing as whale sharks get.















We are still learning about whale sharks. Until 1996, it was thought that the whale sharks laid eggs. A catch revealed a female pregnant with 300 maturing shark pups - proof that whale sharks are ovoviviparous like boas and livebearing fish. Many more mysteries remain regarding their mating rights and exactly where they give birth. There is still a lot to discover about these massive, gentle sharks, and not all of it can be done by swimming up to them while scuba diving.

Whale sharks are native to warm waters around the world. With that distribution came an abundance of folklore and cute nicknames. The whale shark's distinct skin pattern has granted it the name "domino" in some Spanish-speaking regions. Stories about how coins (Kenya) or stars (Java and Madagascar) were planted on the shark's back are common.  The Vietnamese consider this giant fish a deity ("Sir Fish") and, umm, well...

 

...if you have been keeping up with this blog, you know what happens to Asian deities most of the time: They wind up on the menu. Shark fin soup can include whale shark meat as well. A single fin from a whale shark fetches a very pretty penny. There are bans fishing for whale sharks, but oil spills and unknown population numbers mean that this shark will be in the "vulnerable" category for a long time. Few aquariums can hold whale sharks; enjoy them while you can.



Tomorrow: Who's that red-eyed frog we keep seeing at the Rainforest Cafe, again?

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