whale shark

whale shark facts

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The enigmatic whale shark often grows to 40 feet or more and is the largest fish in existence!

Despite their name, whale sharks are not whales, they are actually fish. Their name comes from their huge size. The whale shark typically grows to 40 feet or more and is a fish about the size of a large school bus. These sharks, like many whales, are filter feeders, feeding on plankton and small krill or small fish. Whale sharks are generally peaceful fish and divers have been known to ride the waves by hanging on to their dorsal fin.

Whale shark swimming with pilot fish
Weighing 15 tons, the whale shark is the largest fish in existence.

©Tee Wong/Shutterstock.com

whale shark facts

  • The purpose of whale shark teeth is unclear as they were not actively used.
  • Whale sharks are known to be curious and often interact with boats.
  • Scientists have discovered tiny teeth in the eyeballs of whale sharks.
  • Every year, whale sharks travel thousands of miles of ocean in a migratory pattern.
  • Whale shark eggs remain inside the mother and hatch there.

For a complete list of our favorite whale shark facts, check out our "10 Unbelievable Whale Shark Facts" page!

whale shark scientific name

The scientific name of the whale shark is Rhincodon typus , derived from the Latin words for "file" and "tooth". Whale sharks have many layers of tiny, piercing teeth that are the basis for their name.

Whale sharks belong to the order Orthodont, which also includes nurse sharks, and belong to the class Chondrichthyes (or cartilaginous fishes). It is the only member of the Rhincodontidae family of sharks.

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evolution

Whale sharks were not discovered as a species until the early to mid-1800s. Found off the coast of South Africa, it is believed to have evolved from the carpet shark that lived on the bottom of the sea, although its actual history dates back to the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods 245-65 million years ago. It is still considered a rare species.

appearance and behavior

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world. It is a large fish and can grow up to 60 feet long, but most specimens reach around 40 feet in length and weigh around 15 tons. The largest known whale shark was measured at 62 feet in 2001 and is estimated to have weighed more than 60 tons.

These fish have the shape of sharks, but their mouths are in front of their large, flat heads, rather than below like many sharks. Their mouths are large, more than five feet wide on an average-sized shark, allowing them to scoop up food while swimming. Whale sharks have a dark gray upper body and lighter underparts, with a series of light spots or stripes on darker parts of the body. This helps camouflage them when swimming.

They tend to be non-aggressive, often allowing divers to approach them, and divers have no problem interacting with them gently. These gigantic fish sometimes let divers grab their dorsal fins and drag them across the surface, seemingly oblivious. They will sometimes swim up to boats and may even bump into them, but this behavior seems to be more out of curiosity than out of harm. They get along well with other marine life unless they feel threatened.

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These sharks are generally solitary and live alone, except at certain times of the year when they have been observed congregating in groups (called schools) to feed, such as their annual migration to the coast of Australia.

Whale Shark - Rhincodon Typus - White spots on the back of the whale shark as it swims away

Habitat

These fish are found all over the world, almost always in warm, tropical or temperate waters, with the exception of the Mediterranean Sea. They are usually located between 30°N and 35°S on the coasts of countries such as Belize, Mexico, Ecuador, the Philippines, Australia, and South Africa. They prefer water between 21 and 30 degrees Celsius (70-80F), but have also been found in water as cold as 3 degrees Celsius (37.4F).

Although they inhabit deeper waters across oceans, they are most commonly found in shallow coastal waters where food is plentiful for them to eat.

diet

What Whale Sharks Eat - Whale Shark Filter Feeding
The diet of whale sharks consists mainly of plankton.

©Fata Morgana by Andrew Marriott/Shutterstock.com

Although this giant fish is indeed a shark, it does not hunt large prey, but instead feeds mainly on plankton. Whale sharks eat other small prey such as anchovies, krill, sardines, jellyfish, mackerel, crabs and squid. These sharks will not eat very large meals, including squid or crabs that grow too large.

It's a passive feeding method where the shark swims with its mouth open so it can suck in whatever food is available. Once it has taken a bite of food, the shark closes its mouth and expels water through its gills, leaving the prey in the baleen filter. It can then swallow the food and open its mouth again to collect more prey.

The purpose of the shark's teeth is unclear, as this species of shark does not use teeth to eat. The teeth may sometimes help catch small fish or jellyfish, but this has not been determined.

type

Whale sharks are one of only three filter-feeding sharks.

  • basking shark . The basking shark is another harmless shark that feeds on plankton by filtering large amounts of seawater through its mouth. This shark is the second largest known species of shark, weighing up to 11,000 pounds.
  • megamouth shark . Megamouth sharks are rare filter-feeding sharks that can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and swim in the deep waters of Japan, Southern California, and Hawaii.

Predators and Threats

whale shark
Humans are a threat to whale sharks and in some cases they are accidentally caught in our fishing nets.

©iStock.com/Avesun

Other shark species are actually some of the top whale shark predators, as well as other large marine predators. Great white sharks, tiger sharks, and orcas (also known as killer whales) all prey on smaller, smaller sharks, however, in most cases, these predators do not prey on larger whale sharks because they are too large Predators come to the challenge.

Another threat to the continued existence of these sharks is humans. In some cases, humans have accidentally killed them with fishing nets, and they usually end up dead. These giant fish are still hunted in some countries like India, the Philippines and China, where they are used for food, oil and their fins.

Populations of these sharks have been declining, and in 2016 it was listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), meaning it is at high risk of extinction in the wild.

Reproduction, Babies and Longevity

whale shark with cleaner fish
The lifespan of the whale shark is unknown, but it is estimated to be around 70 years old.

© Schuetze77 / Creative Commons

Little is known about the reproduction of these sharks, as these large fish may evade if they do not want to be seen. Their mating behavior is indeterminate as it is unlikely to be witnessed and therefore not well documented. Scientists do know, however, that these sharks cannot reproduce until they are 25 to 30 years old.

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Once the sharks mate, the female shark keeps the fertilized eggs inside her body so the baby shark eggs have a safe place to develop. They will remain inside the mother until they hatch, at which point the baby sharks will be alive and fully formed and ready to take care of themselves. Therefore, after the babies are born, the mother does not take care of them.

The litter size is uncertain, but a litter of 300 whale shark pups (called pups) has been recorded. Babies are about 21 to 25 inches long at birth.

The lifespan of whale sharks is unknown, but it is estimated to be about 70 years old, and scientists have determined that these large fish can live for more than 100 years, possibly as long as 125 years.

For more information on whale shark reproduction, be sure to read Baby Whale Sharks: 5 Facts and 5 Pictures.

population

There are no accurate global population counts of whale sharks, but parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans appear to be experiencing significant declines. Many countries have banned or regulated the killing of whale sharks, but such activities still occur around the world.

Hundreds of the fish are illegally hunted each year in China, at least in part because their fins are believed to have medicinal properties. Oil was also collected for food and medicine, and some people used fresh or cured meat as a food source. Some estimates suggest that whale shark populations have declined by about 75 percent in some parts of the Pacific Ocean. Therefore, their conservation status is listed as endangered by the IUCN.

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about the author


I was born in New York, got my journalism degree from Boston University, took a detour to San Diego, and am now back in New York. I love traveling with my husband, but always miss my favorite little Peanuts, half Chihuahua/half Jack Russell, all the trouble. We are certified to dive so one day we can dive with great white sharks and I hope I can swim with orcas too. If my house fits it, I'll add a pig – or a sloth.

Whale Shark FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions)

Are whale sharks carnivores, herbivores or omnivores?

Whale sharks are carnivores, but they don't prey on other animals in the way people usually think. They do eat a variety of tiny prey, however, including plankton, krill, anchovies, crabs, fish eggs, sardines, squid and jellyfish. They only eat small prey, so if any of their normal prey grow too large, whale sharks won't eat them.

What are whale shark predators?

While adult whale sharks don't have much fear of predators, juveniles and old or sick whale sharks are preyed on by a variety of fish, including sharks and blue marlins. They are also vulnerable to predators such as killer whales, which are also hunted by humans in some parts of the world.

How big is a whale shark?

At birth, whale sharks are not very large, only about two feet long. However, they grow to be the largest fish in the world, with the average whale shark reaching a length of 40 feet. Some very large specimens have been found exceeding 60 feet in length, with the largest verified whale shark approaching 62 feet in length.

Is a whale shark a shark?

Yes, a whale shark is a shark. Their skeletons are made of cartilage, they use gills to breathe, lay eggs and do not nurse young.

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However, instead of hunting prey with large, sharp teeth and tearing it to shreds, whale sharks feed like many whale species, filtering tiny plankton, small fish and animals from the water for food. They filter water through a built-in filtration system called baleen, spout water and swallow the food they collect. Whale sharks often swim with their mouths open, collecting the food they need as they swim.

Are whale sharks bigger than blue whales?

Blue whales are much larger than whale sharks. Blue whales are about 98 feet long, so they dwarf even the largest known whale sharks, which are only about 60 feet long. However, since blue whales are mammals and whale sharks are not, whale sharks are still the largest fish in the world.

Are Whale Sharks Dangerous?

Generally speaking, whale sharks are not dangerous and usually do not attack humans. They often interact with divers or those on board in a peaceful, non-threatening manner. Some observers have even described young whale sharks as playful. However, humans must keep in mind the large size of this animal and be aware that a person can easily be accidentally injured by an adult whale shark.

To which kingdom do whale sharks belong?

Whale sharks belong to the animal kingdom.

What phylum do whale sharks belong to?

Whale sharks belong to the phylum Chordate.

What class do whale sharks belong to?

Whale sharks belong to the class Chondrichthyes.

What family do whale sharks belong to?

Whale sharks belong to the family Nosodontidae.

What order do whale sharks belong to?

Whale sharks belong to the Orectolobiformes.

What genus do whale sharks belong to?

Whale sharks belong to the genus Rhinoceros.

What type of cover do whale sharks have?

Whale sharks are covered with smooth skin.

What type of habitat do whale sharks live in?

Whale sharks live in warm coastal waters and the open ocean.

What is the main prey of whale sharks?

Whale sharks feed on krill, plankton, crabs and fish.

What is the average litter size for a whale shark?

The average litter size for whale sharks is 12.

What interesting facts about whale sharks?

Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world!

What is the scientific name of the whale shark?

The scientific name of the whale shark is Rhincodon Typus.

What is the lifespan of a whale shark?

Whale sharks can live 60 to 70 years.

How fast are whale sharks?

Whale sharks can travel at speeds of up to 10 miles per hour.

Who will win the battle between the megalodon and the whale shark?

The megalodon will decisively win the battle with the whale shark. This big fish has every reason to win and no reason to lose. Unlike the whale shark, it not only has size and speed advantages, but it is also a real killer.

What is the Difference Between Whale Sharks and Orcas?

The difference between whale sharks and orcas is their size and appearance. The whale shark is a type of fish, while the orca, also known as the killer whale, is a type of marine mammal.

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source
  1. David Burnie, Dorling Kindersley (2011) Animals, The Definitive Visual Guide to the World's Wildlife
  2. Tom Jackson, Lorenz Books (2007) Encyclopedia of World Animals
  3. David Burney, Kingfisher (2011) The Animal Encyclopedia of Kingfishers
  4. Richard Mackay, University of California Press (2009) Atlas of Threatened Species
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