The world’s largest living fish, the whale shark, is threatened by interbreeding, according to a new study in PLoS ONE. Comparing the DNA of 68 individual whale sharks from eleven locations across the globe, geneticists found that the whale sharks had little genetic variation between the populations.
“Our data show that whale sharks found in different oceans are genetically quite similar, which means that animals move and interbreed between populations,” said geneticist Jennifer Schmidt from the University of Illinois at Chicago. “From a conservation standpoint, it means that whale sharks in protected waters cannot be assumed to stay in those waters, but may move into areas where they may be in danger.”
Captive whale shark in the Georgia aquarium. Photo by: Zac Wolf.
The massive plankton-eating whale shark is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN Red List, however some countries still allow it to be hunted meat and shark fin soup, a popular dish in Asia. The lack of knowledge about the whale sharks behavior and reproductive life compounds the problem of conserving the giant animal. Few whale sharks have been studied in the open sea, where they breed and give birth. In addition, the behavior and movements of juvenile whale sharks remains a mystery.
“The only real threat to whale sharks is us,” said Schmidt. “To design proper conservation plans, we need to understand the sharks’ lifestyle. We can only protect their habitat if we know what habitat they use.”
Whale sharks can grow up to 50 feet and weigh over 20 tons They have an estimated lifespan of 70 years and do not reach breeding age until thirty, making any recovery for the species a long process.
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Large shark populations fall 97% in the Mediterranean
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Fatal San Diego Shark Attack a Rare Event
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Mysteries of the Great White Shark unveiled
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Sharks do not win CITES protection
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Shark fin does not cure cancer
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Chinese support shark conservation, but still demand shark fin
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