- Scientists found that whale sharks grow differently based on their sex.
- Male sharks grow faster than females, but females eventually become much, much larger than their counterparts.
- Female whale sharks can reach a maximum size of about 46 meters long.
There are many different types of fish in the world’s oceans. Species vary greatly in everything from color to appetite in size, but the powerful whale shark has long been considered the largest. Whale sharks are not whales at all, of course, as this would make them mammals and not fish, but a new study finds that genus plays a big role in how big a whale shark can get.
The study, which was published in Limits in Marine Science, uses decades-old data to discover how male and female whale sharks grow. As it turns out, male whale sharks grow faster, which may be helpful, but female whale sharks are capable of growing much, much larger.
The researchers found that male whale sharks tend to reach a peak about nine feet[9 m]long, or about 30 feet[30 m]. This is an incredibly large fish, but the ladies of the species are even more impressive. Females tend to grow to an average length of approximately 14 meters or 46 meters before they stop growing. Yes, this is a seriously large fish, but they do not reach that size quickly.
“This is absolutely huge – the size of a curved bus on a city street,” said Dr. Mark Meekan, lead author of the study, in a statement. “But even though they are big, they are growing very, very slowly. It’s only about 20cm or 30cm a year. “
It takes a very long time for sharks to reach their maximum size. The researchers tracked 54 different whale sharks as they roamed the oceans, observing them from time to time and using their unique patterns to identify and distinguish them.
Okay, so female whale sharks grow mega-large, but why? Well, while male sharks can benefit from growing a little faster, female sharks are much larger which benefits them when it comes to protection from predators, especially when they carry offspring.
“Only one pregnant whale shark was ever found, and she had 300 cubs inside her,” said Dr. Meekan. “This is an extraordinary number, most sharks would only have somewhere between two and a dozen. So these giant females are probably getting big because of the need to carry very small. “
Carrying about 300 smaller versions of yourself would definitely be easier if you were 46 feet tall, so I think that makes sense. Still, the discovery is a bit shocking for scientists, as it was thought that sharks really did not reach a size limit during their long, slow-growing life.
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