Mote Marine makes groundbreaking whale shark discovery - WFLA News Channel 8

Mote Marine makes groundbreaking whale shark discovery

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SARASOTA COUNTY, FL (WFLA) -

Whale sharks are some of the most recognizable creatures you'll ever find underwater.

Their polka-dotted backs are unmistakable and they happen to be the largest fish in the ocean.

So it may come as a surprise that scientists didn't know a whole lot about them, until now.

Mote Marine Laboratory just released a ground breaking study in the journal PLOS ONE that opened a wealth of new knowledge.

For years, scientists have known of an interesting trend off the coast of Cancun, Mexico.

Whale shark sightings are common here. It's a popular feeding ground for plankton, but where do the whale sharks come from? And where do they go?

Mote Marine Laboratory researcher Dr. Robert Hueter said, "It's interesting. The biggest fish in the sea and we still have a lot of questions."

So over the course of nine years, from 2003-2012, scientists from Mote Marine lab teamed up with Mexican researchers.

They tagged numerous whale sharks to study their movements.

The scientists would swim alongside the shark and attach the floating tags onto the skin. The tags are programmed to collect the data on the temperature, depth, and distance a shark travels.

They generally leave the tags on the sharks for about six months.

After that time span, the tag automatically detaches itself.

Thanks to the technology learned these animals travel across thousands of miles, and they frequently return to the Mexican coast over the course of many years.

Dr. Hueter said, "We really think that we've discovered some general trends about how big the ocean is to them and how big their home range is."

Scientists also discovered whale sharks can reach depths of well past one mile.

Dr. Hueter and the team wanted to learn more about females. It is rare to find a female Whale Shark in the wild.

"We haven't known where the big females are. Therefore we don't know where they reproduce, where they give birth. Has to be out in the open sea because it's eluded our observation along the coastline," said Hueter.

One whale shark named 'Rio Lady' offered some incredible feedback.

Over the course of five months, she trekked nearly five thousand miles!

Dr. Hueter said, "Actually she's about halfway between Brazil and Africa.  In an area that we now believe, based on her track, is where this species gives birth to their young, and that's something that we've never known before."

So while this study has answered a few questions, these researchers are eager to find out more.

Armed with this new knowledge, they want to launch another expedition to learn more about where these whale sharks give birth.

Scientists also say over in the Pacific, whale sharks are actually hunted.

So they also hope this new research can help lead to a better understanding of how to protect these creatures.

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