Whale sharks, the largest of the shark species, can live up to 130 years and grow longer than scientists once thought, a recent study found.
Scientists at Nova Southeastern University’s (NSU) Guy Harvey Research Institute (GHRI) and collaborators from the Maldives Whale Shark Research Program published a recent study on the world’s largest shark species after finding that male whale sharks can swim in the ocean for up to 130 years, according to Live Science.
The large sharks are plankton-eaters and can weigh up to 20 tons. Though generally harmless to humans, many have spotted them off the coasts of South Florida according to Bakersfield.
Cameron Perry, the first author of the scientific paper, said research was conducted using a unique approach.
“Up to now, aging and growing research has required obtaining vertebrae from dead whale sharks and counting growth rings,” Perry said the rings are similar to that of tree rings. “Our work shows we can obtain age and growth information without relying on dead sharks. That is a big deal.”
The study was published after following free-swimming sharks who returned to the same area every one to two years in the South Ari Atoll, Maldives over a period of 10 years. The returning sharks were recognized due to their uniquely patterned spots, or polka dots, all over their large bodies.
According to researchers the sharks are “longer and bigger than previously believed,” averaging 61.7 feet, nearly 17 feet longer than an average school bus. These measurements are based on 186 encounters with whale sharks who were measured visually as well as with laser and tape.
The research of such a large, poorly understood, and endangered species is crucial according to Mahmood Shivji Ph.D. who is the director of NSU’s GHRI.
“When you couple the lack of knowledge with the fact that whale sharks products such as fins, meat and oil are highly valuable and harvested in many countries, one can see the urgency in learning as much as possible to help save these majestic creatures.”
Researching the large animals and learning their growth dynamics, traveling patterns, and preferred nurseries can help conservationists better understand how to preserve the lives of such a majestic animal, according to Perry.
Although the exact number of whale sharks left on this planet is not specified, their conservation is extremely important, according to scientists. Being placed on the endangered species list once again in 2016, many conservation efforts are made throughout the world to save the largest fish in the sea.