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SADC Whale Shark handout

SADC Whale Shark handout

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Published by Natalie Gillis

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Published by: Natalie Gillis on Jun 01, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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hale sharks—which can grow bigger than
some whales—were rst discovered in 1829off the coast of South Africa. Massive but harmless
to humans, they are, like many other sharks,
in decline. Listed as vulnerable by the IUCN(International Union for the Conservation ofNature and Natural Resources), their placidnature makes them an easy target for sheries for both their meat and ns, which are highly valuedin the international shark-n trade.
Gathering information on whale sharks is critical
to their international protection. However, due tothe difculty and cost of studying them, very little
is known about whale shark biology.
The whale shark is the biggest sh in the world. The largest one on scientic recordwas 12 m long, but there are reports of sharks up to 20 m long and weighing34 tonnes! The whale shark’s blue-grey back is covered with pale spots andstripes. It has a whitish underbelly. This two-tone coloration helps camouage theanimal whether seen from the top or the bottom.The whale shark has a broad, attened head. Its large mouth is up to 1.5 mwide and sits at the front of the short snout (rather than below, as in most other sharks). The rst dorsal n is larger than the second, and three prominent ridges runthe length of either side of the body.
Reproduction and life span
Whale sharks are ovoviviparous: eggs are fertilized and hatched internally butgain no additional nutrition from the female before she gives birth to fully-
developed, live pups.It is estimated that whale sharks live from 60–100 years, reaching sexual maturityafter 30 years—at around 6 m in length in males and 8 m in females. Whale sharksseem to segregate by size and sex, probably mixing only when mating. Whaleshark mating, however, has never been observed.The only pregnant whale shark on record wascaught by shermen in Taiwan. It carried over 300 embryos measuring 42–63 cm long. Pupsare thought to be 55–64 cm long at birth.It is unknown how often whale sharksreproduce, where they mate or give birth,or how many pups survive to maturity.
Diet and feeding
Whale sharks are lter-feeders, sucking water inthrough the mouth and sieving it through thegill-rakers to trap the tiny zooplankton—mainlykrill and larvae, as small as 1 mm—that theyfeed on.
Whale Shark (
Rhincodon typus
Whale sharks nd food through their sense of smell. They have tiny eyes andrelatively poor vision, but their well-developed nostrils, located at either side of theupper jaw, are thought to sense plankton density. They often sweep their headsfrom side to side as they swim to maximize plankton intake.
Whale sharks are found in alltropical and warm seas (exceptthe Mediterranean) and havebeen sighted as far north asNew York and as far south asTasmania. Usually seen offshore,
they occasionally come inshore
or enter lagoons and coral atolls.
Whale sharks inhabit surface
waters with temperatures of18–30°C, but spend most of their time diving to depths greater than 1000 m, where the water can be as cool as 10°C.Whale sharks are migratory andtravel vast distances. The longestrecorded journey spanned 13 000 km and took longer than 36 months. It is thoughtthat males migrate more than females. Migrations are probably related to feedingand mating, and linked to plankton blooms and spawning events.Despite their vast habitats, whale sharks are regularly sighted in a few favoured“hotspots” scattered around the tropics. They are spotted year round in somelocations and seasonally at others. This is thought to be determined by theplankton density in each region.
Want to know more?
To learn more about whale sharks, visit the following online resources:
The Whale Shark Project (www.whalesharkproject.org):
Read up on whale shark biology and ongoing research and conservation efforts; learn how to take photosthat can be used to identify individual whale sharks; and download researchpapers, fact sheets and the whale shark Code of Conduct.
ECOCEAN (www.whaleshark.org):
The ECOCEAN Whale Shark Photo-identicationLibrary is a visual database of individual whale sharks from around the world.Whale shark encounter data submitted to the database is analysed by marinebiologists to learn more about these mysterious sh
If you submit photos of a whale shark encounter, you will be informed whenever “your” whale shark is resighted. Information you provide will contribute to globalwhale shark conservation efforts.
Project Aware (www.projectaware.org):
Use Project Aware’s search engine tond a registered Whale Shark Project Operator for your next holiday. You can alsodownload a Whale Shark Data Reference Sheet to help you capture important
information about your whale shark encounters.
Global whale shark range (red) and the 14 main regions where you are likely to spot awhale shark while snorkeling or diving.
hale sharks are born with a unique patternof spots on their bodies that, like ngerprints,do not change over time. This “bodyprint” can beused, along with information on scars, sex and size,to identify individual whale sharks.This ability to identify individual whale sharks led tothe development, in 1995, of a whale shark photo-ID library at Western Australia’s Ningaloo MarinePark, one of the world’s whale shark hotspots. Atthe time, researchers identied individual sharks byexamining dot patterns and other identifying
characteristics by eye—a time-consuming task.
Marine biology meets the space age
By adapting a computer algorithm originally developed by astronomers to mapstar patterns in images of the night sky, accurate computer matching is nowpossible. The software maps individual spot patterns and compares them withother whale shark patterns already in the photo library.The result is the Interactive Individual Identication System (I3S), which has helpedresearchers identify over 100 individual whale sharks in the Maldives and morethan 1500 whale sharks around the world.
“Virtual” tagging: better than the real thing
The I3S pattern-matching software means a shark can be “virtually tagged” sim
ply by taking a photo. Unlike physical tagging, there is no physical contact withthe animal, leaving it unharmed. And, considering the high cost and short lifespanof plastic shark tags (typically less than one year), and the great distances whalesharks are known to travel, virtual tagging is far more useful for long-term, globalpopulation monitoring.
Click, you’re a whale shark research assistant
Submitting photos and information about your whale shark encounters helpsresearchers understand the movements and overall numbers of whale sharksaround the world. The results can be used by conservation authorities to under 
stand the pressures on whale sharksand to take action to protect them.You can help by simply taking a photoof a whale shark’s unique skin pattern,or “bodyprint,” in the area directlybehind the gills and above the pec
toral ns. If possible, try to get three or four shots of the patterning.Both photos and frame grabs fromvideo can be used for identication.
Left-side spot patterning
is the most
important type of identifying photo.You will get the best photos by beingperpendicular to the spot patterningarea above the left pectoral n.
Whale Shark Photo Identifcation
Dierent photos of the same whale shark showingmatching spot paerns.Target area (behind the gills, above the pectoral n).Posion yourself perpendicular to this area for theperfect whale shark mug shot.

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