Whale Shark, Rhincodon typus Click to enlarge image
A Whale Shark at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, 27 Apr 2009. Image: Erik Schlögl
© Erik Schlögl

Fast Facts

  • Classification
    Species
    typus
    Genus
    Rhincodon
    Family
    Rhincodontidae
    Order
    Orectolobiformes
    Class
    Chondrichthyes
    Subphylum
    Vertebrata
    Phylum
    Chordata
    Kingdom
    Animalia
  • Size Range
    It may grow up to 18 m in length, but fish of 4 m to 12 m in length are more commonly seen.

The Whale Shark is the largest of all fishes and is found in tropical and warm temperate waters. It is a slow moving shark that feeds on small crustaceans, squid and fishes from the water using filtering screens on its gills.



It can be easily recognised by size and colour pattern. The back and sides are blue to blackish with white stripes and blotches. The ventral surface is whitish.

The species has prominent ridges on the sides of the body with the lowermost ridge expanding into a keel on the caudal peduncle.

Habitat

The Whale Shark is a pelagic species that occurs in continental shelf and offshore waters in both tropical and warm temperate waters of all oceans.

Distribution

In Australia it is known primarily from northern Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. It is also recorded from scattered localities in New South Wales, Victoria and the western Great Australian Bight.

The map below shows the Australian distribution of the species based on public sightings and specimens in Australian Museums.



Rhincodon typus
Whale Shark Scales. Scanning electron micrograph of the scales of a Whale Shark from the Australia Museum Fish Collection (AMS IB.7314). Image: S. Lindsay
© Australian Museum

Feeding and diet

There are about 300 tiny, hooked teeth in both jaws. Whale Sharks feed by filtering small crustaceans, squid and fishes from the water using filtering screens on the gills. The species usually feeds by swimming with the huge mouth open, however it can also feed by hanging vertically in the water and opening its mouth to allow water to rush in.

Whale Sharks follow migratory patterns that may be related to the presence of their prey.


whale shark teeth
Teeth from a Whale Shark that was washed up on the beach "2 miles south of the cemetery, Anna Bay, New South Wales, April 1964. Image: Stuart Humphreys
© Australian Museum

Predators

Moore and Newbrey (2015) reported that the vertebrae of a Whale Shark were found in the stomach of a 4.5 m long White Shark. It is unknown whether the Whale Shark was alive or dead when it was eaten.

Danger to humans

Despite its huge size, the Whale Shark is not a threat to people.

References

  1. Last, P.R. & J.D. Stevens. 1994 Sharks and Rays of Australia. CSIRO. Pp. 513.
  2. Moore, G.I. & M.G. Newbrey, 2015. Whale shark on white shark's menu. Mar. Biodiv. DOI 10.1007/s12526-015-0430-9.
  3. Paxton, J.R., D.F. Hoese, G.R. Allen & J.E. Hanley. 1989. Zoological Catalogue of Australia Vol.7 Pisces Petromyzontidae to Carangidae. Canberra: Australian Biological Resources Survey. Pp. i-xii, 1-665. Randall, J.E.,
  4. Allen, G.R. & R.C. Steene. 1997. Fishes of the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. Crawford House Press. Pp. 557.