Baku, July 28, AZERTAC
Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) are the largest shark, and indeed largest of any fishes alive today.
They feed on plankton and travel large distances to find enough food to sustain their huge size, and to reproduce.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), whale sharks are found in all the tropical oceans of the world. Their white spotted colouration makes these gentle giants easy to distinguish, and popular with snorkelers and divers at sites where they aggregate off the coast.
The maximum size of whale sharks is not known, but could be as large as 20m. Females give birth to live young but this has never been observed.
Where pupping occurs and where the youngest animals situate remains a mystery, as they are very rarely found.
Adults are often found feeding at the surface, but may dive to 1000m. Whale sharks are protected from fishing in many countries these days, but are in decline in some areas.
The whale shark, like the world's largest fish, is a filter feeder. In order to eat, the beast juts out its formidably sized jaws and passively filters everything in its path. The mechanism is theorized to be a technique called “cross-flow filtration,” similar to some bony fish and baleen whales.
The whale shark's flattened head sports a blunt snout above its mouth with short barbels protruding from its nostrils. Its back and sides are gray to brown with white spots among pale vertical and horizontal stripes, and its belly is white. Its two dorsal fins are set rearward on its body, which ends in a large dual-lobbed caudal fin (or tail).
Although massive, whale sharks are docile fish and sometimes allow swimmers to hitch a ride. They are currently listed as a vulnerable species; however, they continue to be hunted in parts of Asia, such as the Philippines.
Like human fingerprints, whale sharks have a unique pattern of spots which allow individual sharks to be identified. By taking photos and cataloguing them, the WWF has identified 458 different whale sharks in the Philippines.
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