Whale sharks can be distinguished by their spots and stripes as every individual has its own pattern they can be identified by –just like the human fingerprint. This helps nature conservationists and researchers to identify and distinguish these massive fish in a non-invasive way by comparing the pictures they are taking with the animals’ information they have already stored. This way they can track the movement of these highly mobile sharks around the Maldives.
“Does it have teeth??” This question is understandably one of the first thoughts a research assistant might put into words after they are introduced to this unusual fish they are supposed to swim with in the open sea. And of course this is only reasonable, considering a jump into the water after someone shouts “SHARK” might end up quite unpleasant in most cases. But to answer the question: Yes, they do have teeth. And now to ease your surprise: They are really tiny and are no threat whatsoever to humans, especially because their diet isfilter-fed and contains lots of plankton, krill and the like.
Andrew Smith, a Scottish military surgeon and pen pal of Charles Darwin was the first one to describe the whale shark in the 19th century. As a preeminent zoologist who was in South Africa at the time in 1928 when a whale shark was harpooned off Table Bay, he was the first one to describe this, until then unknown, species in a scientific way and chose to name it Rhincodon typus, the ocean giant. The same question concerning its teeth and the surprise of only finding rows of hundreds of barely visible teeth might have driven him to name this truly huge creature the way he did, as Rhincodon typus which literally means rasp-tooth (Rhin = rasp codon = tooth). Smith was also involved in giving another big shark a tooth-related name: The Carcharodon carcharias (Carcharodon, or ‘ragged tooth’) or more commonly known as the great white shark
As it is a fundamental piece of information it is even more stunning, that biologists and conservationists have no idea how, how often or where whale sharks are breeding and no one in history has ever seen them mating! This knowledge is essential for understanding the growth of their population or the loss of individuals. Moreover, it would be essential information as they are likely to be even more vulnerable in these periods of time and need an even more extensive protection.
So far only ONE pregnant whale shark was caught in Taiwan in 1995 and everything that is known about their reproduction comes from this individual! Scientists concluded that the large whale sharks are most likely able to store sperm and fertilize eggs when ready after they analyzed 30 embryos from the pregnant shark. The analysis showed that the embryos that were all at different development stages were all from the same father.
Even though it is not completely understood how much they hear, it can be said that whale sharks have the largest eardrum in the animal kingdom. Scientists developed the theory that this helps them to find their prey – which would also mean, that they are able to hear plankton – imagine this!
Even though the meaning is not yet fully understood, it was observed that the behaviour of these large fish varies between environments and individuals. In the presence of humans some of them are quite accustomed to the occasional company of divers and were seen over 200 times in the time from 2006 to 2008. Others may be more cautious, show signs of evasive behaviour and dive off to the reef again real fast even though divers keep their 4m-distance, try to be no obstruction and use no flash while taking pictures (code of conduct). In great contrast to that some of them, especially the younger, smaller ones can be quite curious and often try to approach humans and boats – presumably to get a better glance!