Whale sharks increase swimming effort while filter feeding

Published on
11. June 2020

Whale sharks increase swimming effort while filter feeding, but appear to maintain high foraging efficiencies

David E. Cade, J. Jacob Levenson, Robert Cooper, Rafael de la Parra, D. Harry Webb, Alistair D. M. Dove


Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) – the largest extant fish species – reside in tropical environments, making them an exception to the general rule that animal size increases with latitude. How this largest fish thrives in tropical environments that promote high metabolism but support less robust zooplankton communities has not been sufficiently explained. We used open-source inertial measurement units (IMU) to log 397 h of whale shark behavior in Yucatán, Mexico, at a site of both active feeding and intense wildlife tourism. Here we show that the strategies employed by whale sharks to compensate for the increased drag of an open mouth are similar to ram feeders five orders of magnitude smaller and one order of magnitude larger. Presumed feeding constituted 20% of the total time budget of four sharks, with individual feeding bouts lasting up to 11 consecutive hours. Compared with normal, sub-surface swimming, three sharks increased their stroke rate and amplitude while surface feeding, while one shark that fed at depth did not demonstrate a greatly increased energetic cost. Additionally, based on time-depth budgets, we estimate that aerial surveys of shark populations should consider including a correction factor of 3 to account for the proportion of daylight hours that sharks are not visible at the surface. With foraging bouts generally lasting several hours, interruptions to foraging during critical feeding periods may represent substantial energetic costs to these endangered species, and this study presents baseline data from which management decisions affecting tourist interactions with whale sharks may be made.

Journal of Experimental Biology 2020 223: jeb224402 doi: 10.1242/jeb.224402


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