Whale shark (Rhincodon typus)

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Whale shark filter feeding, surrounded by other smaller fish
IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable VULNERABLE

Top facts

  • The whale shark is the largest fish in the world.
  • Whale sharks have very distinctive markings, with their dark greyish-blue back and sides being covered in yellow blotches.
  • Whale sharks have been tracked travelling for thousands of kilometres.
  • The whale shark has 300 tiny teeth in its mouth, but the function of these teeth is unknown.
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Whale shark fact file

Whale shark description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassChondrichthyes
OrderOrectolobiformes
FamilyRhincodontidae
GenusRhincodon (1)

The whale shark (Rhincodon typus) is the largest fish in the world; with its vast size it resembles the whales from which its common name is derived. The head is flattened and the wide mouth, positioned at the tip of the snout, stretches almost as wide as the body. The dorsal fin is particularly large and the tail has a half-moon shape. The patterning of the body is very distinctive with its dark greyish-blue colour on the back and sides, and array of pale yellow blotches; the undersurface is pale (5). Stout ridges travel the length of the body, ending at the tail shaft (6). Five massive gill slits occur on the side of the head and within these there is a sieve like structure of cartilage (5). Curiously, the mouth contains around 300 tiny teeth although the function of these is unknown (6).

French
Requin Baleine.
Spanish
Tiburón Ballena.
Size
Length: 9 - 12 m (2)
Weight
up to 12,500 kg (2)
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Whale shark biology

These sharks are usually solitary, but loose groups of up to 100 individuals have been sighted, often when they are feeding (5). Whale sharks appear to be highly migratory (2), and have been tracked for thousands of kilometres (7). Individuals who regularly visit the Ningaloo Reef in Australia, between March and May every year, appear to be mainly immature male whale sharks (8). It is not clear whether movements across deep ocean basins follow prey routes or are undertaken for other reasons. Very little is known about the reproduction of the world's largest fish, but in 1995, one pregnant female was captured who contained nearly 300 foetuses (5). The whale shark is ovoviviparous; the young hatch from eggs retained within the mother so that she then gives birth to live young.

Whale sharks are fairly docile creatures and feed on planktonic organisms and small fish by suction filter-feeding (2). This species is thought to be a more dynamic filter-feeder than, for example, the basking shark, actively sucking food in through their vast mouths and passing the water over the gill arches, where prey are retained and then swallowed (5). Basking sharks have also been observed actively swimming through shoals of fish with their mouth agape or hanging vertically in the water and drawing food into their mouths (8).

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Whale shark range

Found throughout the world's oceans in temperate and tropical waters, the whale shark most commonly occurs in a global band around the equator between 30° to 40° latitude (2).

See this species on Google Earth.

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Whale shark habitat

The whale shark inhabits shallow coastal areas as well as the open ocean. This species prefers warm water, with surface temperature between 21° to 30° Celcius (5), but can tolerate water temperatures experienced on deep dives (over 1,000 metres) as low as 3° centigrade (7).

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Whale shark status

The whale shark is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1). Listed on Appendix II of CITES (3), and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS or Bonn Convention) (4).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable

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Whale shark threats

Whale sharks have been fished throughout their range, and their flesh is highly valued in some Asian markets. The recent increase in the demand for shark-fin soup threatens this species; in 1999, a large whale shark fin sold for around £11,000 (9). Although little is known about the ecology of this species, it is likely to be long-lived with a slow reproduction rate, making populations particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Where these shy creatures regularly come close to shore, they have become important tourist attractions, but the impact of shark-watching tours is at present poorly understood (5).

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Whale shark conservation

The catching of whale sharks is now prohibited in the Philippines and international conservation and management plans are encouraged by its listing on Appendix II of the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS) (4). In an historic move in 2002, the whale shark was included on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) (3). These awesome creatures are now an important part of the tourism industry in Thailand, South Africa, Seychelles, Mozambique, Honduras and the Maldives (10). They make annual visits to the northwest coast of Australia, where they are found within the Ningaloo Marine Park and provide a massive tourist attraction. The Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM) has produced strict guidelines and protection measures in order to minimise the impact of shark-watching tours, and research projects in the area hope to understand these mysterious giants further (8).

To learn more about a Whitley Award-winning conservation project for this species, click here.
Environment Agency - Abu Dhabi is a principal sponsor of ARKive. EAD is working to protect and conserve the environment as well as promoting sustainable development in the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

Fur further information on the whale shark see:

For further information on shark conservation visit:

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Authentication

Authenticated (26/03/08) by Dr Juerg Brunnschweiler.

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Glossary

Dorsal fin
In fish, the unpaired fin found on the back of the body.
Ovovivipary
Method of reproduction whereby the egg shell is weakly formed and young hatch inside the mother; they are nourished by their yolk sac and then born.
Plankton
Aquatic organisms that drift with water movements; may be either phytoplankton (plants), or zooplankton (animals).
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (February, 2008)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org
  2. Whale Shark Research Group (August, 2002)
    http://www.whaleshark.org
  3. CITES (November, 2002)
    http://www.cites.org
  4. CMS (August, 2002)
    http://www.cms.int
  5. Shark Specialist Group (August, 2002)
    http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/organizations/ssg/ssg.htm
  6. Australian Museum (August, 2002)
    http://www.amonline.net.au/fishes/fishfacts/fish/rtypus.htm
  7. Brunnschweiler, J. (2008) Pers. comm.
  8. Department of Fisheries, Western Australia (August, 2002)
    http://www.fish.wa.gov.au/index.php
  9. Whorton, B. (2002) A Gathering of Giants. BBC Wildlife Magazine, 20(8): 53 - 55.
  10. CITES. (2000) Proposals for Amendment of Appendices I and II, Proposal 11.47. Eleventh Meeting of the Conference of the Parties, Nairobi, Kenya.
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Image credit

Whale shark filter feeding, surrounded by other smaller fish  
Whale shark filter feeding, surrounded by other smaller fish

© Andy Rouse / naturepl.com

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