The whale shark, Rhincodon typus, is the largest extant species of fish in the world and may attain lengths in excess of twelve meters (forty feet). Despite its very large size, the whale shark is a generally placid and inoffensive creature that feeds upon plankton, swimming crustaceans, and small species of schooling fish in the water. The whale shark is a filter feeder, and it cruises through the water column with its mouth open. Any food in the water is caught by the large and extensive gill rakers, which are large, sievelike structures located upon the gill arches. The water then passes to the exterior of the animal through the gill arches, and the trapped food is swallowed. The whale shark occasionally exhibits more specialized feeding behavior, hanging almost vertically in the water and opening its mouth. The powerful suction caused by the opening of the mouth draws in water and any food in the vicinity. Whale sharks are believed to be highly migratory, and are encountered either singly or in groups of up to several hundred individuals. Although comparatively little is known about the lives of these animals, they have been observed to congregate at various locations, such as Ningaloo Reef inWestern Australia, at predictable seasonal times. These aggregations are believed to be associated with particularly favorable feeding conditions, such as the spawning cycles of corals. When they are not congregating at these sites, whale sharks are known to make long voyages. Satellite tracking of radio tags attached to whale sharks for periods as long as thirteen months have demonstrated that these fish may range far and wide, crossing the oceans.
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