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      Horizontal Movements, Migration Patterns, and Population Structure of Whale Sharks in the Gulf of Mexico and Northwestern Caribbean Sea

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          Whale sharks, Rhincodon typus, aggregate by the hundreds in a summer feeding area off the northeastern Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico, where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea. The aggregation remains in the nutrient-rich waters off Isla Holbox, Isla Contoy and Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo for several months in the summer and then dissipates between August and October. Little has been known about where these sharks come from or migrate to after they disperse. From 2003–2012, we used conventional visual tags, photo-identification, and satellite tags to characterize the basic population structure and large-scale horizontal movements of whale sharks that come to this feeding area off Mexico. The aggregation comprised sharks ranging 2.5–10.0 m in total length and included juveniles, subadults, and adults of both sexes, with a male-biased sex ratio (72%). Individual sharks remained in the area for an estimated mean duration of 24–33 days with maximum residency up to about 6 months as determined by photo-identification. After leaving the feeding area the sharks showed horizontal movements in multiple directions throughout the Gulf of Mexico basin, the northwestern Caribbean Sea, and the Straits of Florida. Returns of individual sharks to the Quintana Roo feeding area in subsequent years were common, with some animals returning for six consecutive years. One female shark with an estimated total length of 7.5 m moved at least 7,213 km in 150 days, traveling through the northern Caribbean Sea and across the equator to the South Atlantic Ocean where her satellite tag popped up near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We hypothesize this journey to the open waters of the Mid-Atlantic was for reproductive purposes but alternative explanations are considered. The broad movements of whale sharks across multiple political boundaries corroborates genetics data supporting gene flow between geographically distinct areas and underscores the need for management and conservation strategies for this species on a global scale.

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          Most cited references 11

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          Population genetic structure of Earth's largest fish, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus).

          Large pelagic vertebrates pose special conservation challenges because their movements generally exceed the boundaries of any single jurisdiction. To assess the population structure of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), we sequenced complete mitochondrial DNA control regions from individuals collected across a global distribution. We observed 51 single site polymorphisms and 8 regions with indels comprising 44 haplotypes in 70 individuals, with high haplotype (h = 0.974 +/- 0.008) and nucleotide diversity (pi = 0.011 +/- 0.006). The control region has the largest length variation yet reported for an elasmobranch (1143-1332 bp). Phylogenetic analyses reveal no geographical clustering of lineages and the most common haplotype was distributed globally. The absence of population structure across the Indian and Pacific basins indicates that oceanic expanses and land barriers in Southeast Asia are not impediments to whale shark dispersal. We did, however, find significant haplotype frequency differences (AMOVA, Phi(ST) = 0.107, P < 0.001) principally between the Atlantic and Indo-Pacific populations. In contrast to other recent surveys of globally distributed sharks, we find much less population subdivision and no evidence for cryptic evolutionary partitions. Discovery of the mating and pupping areas of whale sharks is key to further population genetic studies. The global pattern of shared haplotypes in whale sharks provides a compelling argument for development of broad international approaches for management and conservation of Earth's largest fish.
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            Sexual segregation of pelagic sharks and the potential threat from fisheries.

            Large pelagic sharks are declining in abundance in many oceans owing to fisheries exploitation. What is not known however is whether within-species geographical segregation of the sexes exacerbates this as a consequence of differential exploitation by spatially focused fisheries. Here we show striking sexual segregation in the fastest swimming shark, the shortfin mako Isurus oxyrinchus, across the South Pacific Ocean. The novel finding of a sexual 'line in the sea' spans a historical longline-fishing intensity gradient, suggesting that differential exploitation of the sexes is possible, a phenomenon which may underlie changes in the shark populations observed elsewhere.
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              Feeding anatomy, filter-feeding rate, and diet of whale sharks Rhincodon typus during surface ram filter feeding off the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico.

              The feeding anatomy, behavior and diet of the whale shark Rhincodon typus were studied off Cabo Catoche, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico. The filtering apparatus is composed of 20 unique filtering pads that completely occlude the pharyngeal cavity. A reticulated mesh lies on the proximal surface of the pads, with openings averaging 1.2mm in diameter. Superficial to this, a series of primary and secondary cartilaginous vanes support the pads and direct the water across the primary gill filaments. During surface ram filter feeding, sharks swam at an average velocity of 1.1m/s with 85% of the open mouth below the water's surface. Sharks on average spent approximately 7.5h/day feeding at the surface on dense plankton dominated by sergestids, calanoid copepods, chaetognaths and fish larvae. Based on calculated flow speed and underwater mouth area, it was estimated that a whale shark of 443 cm total length (TL) filters 326 m(3)/h, and a 622 cm TL shark 614 m(3)/h. With an average plankton biomass of 4.5 g/m(3) at the feeding site, the two sizes of sharks on average would ingest 1467 and 2763 g of plankton per hour, and their daily ration would be approximately 14,931 and 28,121 kJ, respectively. These values are consistent with independently derived feeding rations of captive, growing whale sharks in an aquarium. A feeding mechanism utilizing cross-flow filtration of plankton is described, allowing the sharks to ingest plankton that is smaller than the mesh while reducing clogging of the filtering apparatus. Copyright © 2010 Elsevier GmbH. All rights reserved.

                Author and article information

                Role: Editor
                PLoS One
                PLoS ONE
                PLoS ONE
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                21 August 2013
                : 8
                : 8
                [1 ]Center for Shark Research, Mote Marine Laboratory, Sarasota, Florida, United States of America
                [2 ]Proyecto Dominó – Ch’ooj Ajauil Asociación Civil, Cancún, México
                University of Illinois at Chicago, United States of America
                Author notes

                Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

                Conceived and designed the experiments: REH JPT RdlP. Performed the experiments: REH JPT RdlP. Analyzed the data: JPT. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: REH JPT RdlP. Wrote the paper: REH JPT.


                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

                Page count
                Pages: 19
                This research was supported by funding from Georgia Aquarium (, Christopher Reynolds Foundation (, National Geographic Society (, Mote Marine Laboratory ( and an anonymous private foundation. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.
                Research Article
                Behavioral Ecology
                Conservation Science
                Marine Ecology
                Population Ecology
                Marine Biology
                Fisheries Science
                Marine Conservation
                Marine Ecology
                Population Biology
                Population Dynamics
                Animal Behavior



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