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The Ellen Show, YouTube
The Ellen Show, YouTube

10 Huge Facts About Whale Sharks 

The Ellen Show, YouTube
The Ellen Show, YouTube

This fascinating, filter-feeding species will finally get its close-up in this summer's Finding Dory. Here are a few things you might not have known about the world's largest fish.

1. THE BIGGEST ARE ABOUT 40 FEET LONG.

It’s often said that the whale shark’s maximum length from end to end is about 45 feet, but this is a fish story. The longest verified measurements of live (or recently dead) specimens are in the 40-foot range. 

How heavy can they get? That’s a difficult question to answer. Weighing such huge marine animals is no easy task; many scientists simply estimate instead. Still, researchers at the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium have managed to weigh several individuals over the years. The heaviest they’ve encountered was a captured 30-footer that weighed just above 7 tons. In the wild, longer ones probably weigh a good deal more.

2. MOTHERS GIVE BIRTH TO LIVE YOUNG.

For years, there was much debate over how baby whale sharks come into the world. Then, in 1995, a pregnant female was fatally harpooned near Taiwan. An autopsy revealed that her uteri (all sharks have two) contained around 300 unborn embryos. This discovery confirmed that the species is ovoviviparous. In other words, whale sharks—like certain snakes—hatch from eggs that are stored inside their mother’s body. Afterward, the little fish exit her womb fully-formed.

3. WHALE SHARKS GROW UP FAST.

Thirty or 40-foot adult whale sharks have few natural enemies. Juveniles, on the other hand, are easy pickings for predators like blue sharks and marlins. These youngsters have every incentive to get big quick—which is exactly what they do.

Consider this: In just three years and 68 days, one newborn whale shark at Japan’s Oita Ecological Aquarium went from weighing 1.7 to 333.4 pounds. Another infant showed the astonishing growth rate of 18 inches per year over 630 days.

But, like human babies, young whale sharks don’t keep growing at the same speed forever. Once the fish reach a certain size, scientists theorize that their growth rate slows down considerably. By then, the creatures have—again, in theory—become big enough to scare away would-be attackers. 

4. THEY’VE GOT THOUSANDS OF TEETH.

Most sharks have 20 to 30 rows of pearly whites, but whale sharks have more than 300 rows. That means a whale shark has 3000 individual teeth, each one about the size of a match head.

5. WHALE SHARKS CAN FEED VIA SUCTION.

All those teeth don't do very much, though. Despite their enormous size, whale sharks exclusively dine on very small life forms like plankton, krill, fish eggs, and small fish. The sharks usually swallow their food whole. Attached to the gills is a mesh-like network of long, cartilaginous bars known as “gill rakers.” These allow water to escape, but prevent even millimeter-sized victims from doing so. Eventually, the meal is forced down our whale shark’s narrow throat and digested.

Sometimes, a whale shark will lazily swim with its mouth agape. This low-energy feeding technique allows the beast to passively swallow any food items that might be in its path. But when it sees a dense cluster of potential targets, the shark changes tactics: The animal creates suction by rapidly opening and closing its jaws, pulling dinner into its cavernous maw. Here’s a look at this second method in action:

6. THEY’RE MIGRATORY. 

Generally, whale sharks—which are tropical and sub-tropical fish—are encountered from latitudes 30° N to 35° S. Within this range, they move around a lot: In three years, a single whale shark can travel 8000 miles or more. Though scientists don’t fully understand their migration habits, we know that the fish tend to gather en masse in specific places at specific times. For example, huge schools visit exotic locales like the Galapagos Islands and Yucatan Peninsula every summer to gorge on plankton.

7. PARTS OF THEIR SKIN ARE INCREDIBLY TOUGH.

Covered in hard, tooth-like scales called denticles, the hide on a whale shark's back can be up to 4 inches thick. Whale sharks can toughen this skin still further by clenching the muscles that lie just beneath it. Conversely, their underbellies are relatively soft and vulnerable—so when approached by human divers, a whale shark will often turn its belly away from them.  

8. WE DON’T KNOW HOW OLD THEY CAN GET.

Most experts agree that whale sharks reach sexual maturity around age 30, but their total life expectancy is unknown—and estimates are all over the map. According to some ichthyologists, the big fish probably die in their sixties. Others speculate that whale sharks can live to be 100 or even 150 years old. For the record, scientists aren’t completely sure about the great white shark’s maximum lifespan either—though they’re now known to reach age 70 or more.

9. WHALE SHARKS ARE LIABLE TO JOURNEY FAR BELOW THE SURFACE.

In 2003 and 2004, a team led by biologist S.G. Wilson studied the long-term movements of six different whale sharks near western Australia. According to their results, the sharks mostly avoid deep plunges—in fact, the surveyed animals spent over half of their time within 100 feet of the surface.

With that said, though, whale sharks occasionally travel much, much further down. One of the Wilson team’s specimens, for instance, spent at least 12 uninterrupted hours at a depth of 3215 feet. And this wasn’t an isolated incident—tagged whale sharks off the coasts of India have been recorded hitting 2200- to 3200-foot depths as well. Why do the fish embark on such extreme dives? Nobody knows, although the answer likely has something to do with either keeping cool or gathering food.

10. NASA (INDIRECTLY) HELPED PERFECT A WHALE SHARK TRACKING SERVICE.

No two whale sharks share the exact same pattern. Just behind their gills, every single one has a totally unique arrangement of pale, white spots. Today, this fun fact is helping biologists keep tabs on individual sharks—with some help from a secret weapon inspired by NASA. 

Mapping out stars can be a daunting task. The Groth algorithm, created in 1986, is a pattern-recognition formula that enables NASA scientists to identify the countless star fields observed by instruments like the Hubble Telescope.

Decades later, one conservationist group is using a new version of this for a very different purpose. ECOCEAN is an Australian non-profit that runs the largest whale shark identification program on earth—and anybody with a camera can participate. The concept is simple. If you’ve ever filmed or photographed a wild whale shark, send ECOCEAN a copy of your footage—along with some basic details about when and where the encounter occurred.

Then, a modified Groth algorithm is used to figure out if your fish is one of the 13,000-plus individuals on their record. If a match is pinpointed, you’ll get an email with a summary of that particular shark’s migration history.

Jason Holmberg of Portland, Oregon is ECOCEAN’s information architect. During the early 2000s, he worked with NASA astrophysicist Zaven Arzoumanian to develop this new fish-centered Groth algorithm. As Holmberg explained, their final product closely resembles the original. “We just adapted that from [identifying] white spots on a black night sky to white spots on the flank of a whale shark,” he told National Geographic

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Scatterbrained
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Dogs
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YouTube

Dogs: They’re cute, they’re cuddly … and they can smell fear!

Today on Scatterbrained, John Green and friends go beyond the floof to reveal some fascinating facts about our canine pals—including the story of one Bloodhound who helped track down 600 criminals during his lifetime. (Move over, McGruff.) They’re also looking at the name origins of some of your favorite dog breeds, going behind the scenes of the Puppy Bowl, and dishing the details on how a breed gets to compete at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.

You can watch the full episode below.

For more episodes like this one, be sure to subscribe here!

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Animals
Sploot 101: 12 Animal Slang Words Every Pet Parent Should Know
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iStock

For centuries, dogs were dogs and cats were cats. They did things like bark and drink water and lay down—actions that pet parents didn’t need a translator to understand.

Then the internet arrived. Scroll through the countless Facebook groups and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing cute animal pictures and you’ll quickly see that dogs don’t have snouts, they have snoots, and cats come in a colorful assortment of shapes and sizes ranging from smol to floof.

Pet meme language has been around long enough to start leaking into everyday conversation. If you're a pet owner (or lover) who doesn’t want to be out of the loop, here are the terms you need to know.

1. SPLOOT

You know your pet is fully relaxed when they’re doing a sploot. Like a split but for the whole body, a sploot occurs when a dog or cat stretches so their bellies are flat on the ground and their back legs are pointing behind them. The amusing pose may be a way for them to take advantage of the cool ground on a hot day, or just to feel a satisfying stretch in their hip flexors. Corgis are famous for the sploot, but any quadruped can do it if they’re flexible enough.

2. DERP

Person holding Marnie the dog.
Emma McIntyre, Getty Images for ASPCA

Unlike most items on this list, the word derp isn’t limited to cats and dogs. It can also be a stand-in for such expressions of stupidity as “duh” or “dur.” In recent years the term has become associated with clumsy, clueless, or silly-looking cats and dogs. A pet with a tongue perpetually hanging out of its mouth, like Marnie or Lil Bub, is textbook derpy.

3. BLEP

Cat laying on desk chair.
PoppetCloset, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

If you’ve ever caught a cat or dog poking the tip of its tongue past its front teeth, you’ve seen a blep in action. Unlike a derpy tongue, a blep is subtle and often gone as quickly as it appears. Animal experts aren’t entirely sure why pets blep, but in cats it may have something to do with the Flehmen response, in which they use their tongues to “smell” the air.

4. MLEM

Mlems and bleps, though very closely related, aren’t exactly the same. While blep is a passive state of being, mlem is active. It’s what happens when a pet flicks its tongue in and out of its mouth, whether to slurp up water, taste food, or just lick the air in a derpy fashion. Dogs and cats do it, of course, but reptiles have also been known to mlem.

5. FLOOF

Very fluffy cat.
J. Sibiga Photography, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Some pets barely have any fur, and others have coats so voluminous that hair appears to make up most of their bodyweight. Dogs and cats in the latter group are known as floofs. Floofy animals will famously leave a wake of fur wherever they sit and can squeeze through tight spaces despite their enormous mass. Samoyeds, Pomeranians, and Persian cats are all prime examples of floofs.

6. BORK

Dog outside barking.
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According to some corners of the internet, dogs don’t bark, they bork. Listen carefully next time you’re around a vocal doggo and you won’t be able to unhear it.

7. DOGGO

Shiba inu smiling up at the camera.
iStock

Speaking of doggos: This word isn’t hard to decode. Every dog—regardless of size, floofiness, or derpiness—can be a doggo. If you’re willing to get creative, the word can even be applied to non-dog animals like fennec foxes (special doggos) or seals (water doggos). The usage of doggo saw a spike in 2016 thanks to the internet and by the end of 2017 it was listed as one of Merriam-Webster’s “Words We’re Watching.”

8. SMOL

Tiny kitten in grass.
iStock

Some pets are so adorably, unbearably tiny that using proper English to describe them just doesn’t cut it. Not every small pet is smol: To earn the label, a cat or dog (or kitten or puppy) must excel in both the tiny and cute departments. A pet that’s truly smol is likely to induce excited squees from everyone around it.

9. PUPPER

Hands holding a puppy.
iStock

Like doggo, pupper is self-explanatory: It can be used in place of the word puppy, but if you want to use it to describe a fully-grown doggo who’s particularly smol and cute, you can probably get away with it.

10. BOOF

We’ve already established that doggos go bork, but that’s not the only sound they make. A low, deep bark—perhaps from a dog that can’t decide if it wants to expend its energy on a full bark—is best described as a boof. Consider a boof a warning bark before the real thing.

11. SNOOT

Dog noses poking out beneath blanket.
iStock

Snoot was already a dictionary-official synonym for nose by the time dog meme culture took the internet by storm. But while snoot is rarely used to describe human faces today, it’s quickly becoming the preferred term for pet snouts. There’s even a wholesome viral challenge dedicated to dogs poking their snoots through their owners' hands.

12. BOOP

Have you ever seen a dog snoot so cute you just had to reach out and tap it? And when you did, was your action accompanied by an involuntary “boop” sound? This urge is so universal that boop is now its own verb. Humans aren’t the only ones who can boop: Search the word on YouTube and treat yourself to hours of dogs, cats, and other animals exchanging the love tap.

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