Wildlife Wednesdays: Whale Sharks

Sadly, this week’s Wildlife Wednesday was inspired by yet another piece of scary news on plastic pollution. 

The BBC reported this week on the reality of the threat to the ocean’s giants by marine plastic.

They referenced a study, published in the Trends in Ecology and Evolution journal, which stated that species like whales, sharks and rays may be swallowing hundreds of tiny bits of plastic a day. 

Worryingly, there’s very little research being carried out into the risks of microplastic pollution, but, after looking at data, researchers from the US, Australia and Italy found that small plastic pieces less than  5mm long can be extremely harmful to both the ocean and it’s life. 

A few species were listed as examples including the fin shark, the manta ray and the whale shark. 

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These are known as ‘filter feeders’ – species which swallow hundreds of cubic metres of water a day to catch food. In the process, they’re also ingesting microplastics.

And the toxins associated with microplastics can have negative effects on their growth, development, reproduction and other bodily functions. 

Whale sharks in an important breeding ground in the Sea of Cortez, off Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, are now estimated to ingest under 200 pieces of plastic per day. 

Whale sharks are already severely threatened – listed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List.  Yet they’re also extremely well-loved; and so they should be. 

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So for this week’s Wildlife Wednesday, I’d like to shine a spotlight on this incredible gentle giant of the deep.

Here’s five facts on these amazing creatures…

  • Whale sharks are the largest fish in the world – the longest ever recorded was over 13.5 metres – yet they feed on some of the tiniest creatures in the ocean.
  • These gentle giants have over 20,000 teeth but they’re not even thought to be used for feeding. Scientists haven’t actually worked out why these sharks have so many tiny teeth…
  • The striking white spots on the upperside of the shark is actually used to identify individuals and helps researchers find out more about the species
  • Whale sharks are found in warmer temperate and tropical waters – but they’re widespread across the globe. They can be found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans.
  • Whale sharks (and all sharks) are known as cartilaginous fish – they have a skeleton made of cartilage rather than bone. The second largest of this type of fish is the basking shark – which is almost like a cold water version of the whale shark. But where basking sharks swim through the water with their mouths open, whale sharks gulp water.

If you do a search for whale sharks on Instagram, you’ll probably find some amazing photos of people diving and swimming with them. Although I’d be slightly intimidated and in awe, I sort of do want to do this. How incredible would it be?! 

To find out more, visit Sharks-World here, or watch some incredible videos over at BBC Nature. 

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