Whale Sharks are the world’s largest fish. Adored by millions due to their popularity in famous aquariums across the globe, the magnificent whale shark is an endangered species of fish that has held our fascination for a long time.
The unique name that sets them apart is derived from their size and appearance. Growing up to 40 feet in length, they have the imposing presence of a whale. Being a shark, they have the imposing and streamlined body of a predator and thus, they are called whale shark. Sporting a deep blue shade with white spots, they are an impressive fish to look at and study.
Now, a team of researchers closely monitoring the species have made some incredible findings about the endangered giant that will delight animal enthusiasts. Research conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Southampton has found that whale sharks can completely recover from a lot of injuries. The team, looking to understand the time it takes for healing processes in whale sharks found that these creatures can heal from abrasions, cuts, bruises and deep lacerations in a matter of weeks.
They were also surprised to find that some whale sharks also demonstrated the ability to regrow parts of their dorsal fin cut off due to possible contact with ship propellers and other underwater infrastructure or a tussle with a another whale shark.
Significance of Findings
The research paper published in Conservation Physiology conservation physiology documented this finding that is a rare characteristic in nature. Only a few creatures in nature are able to regenerate lost body parts or limbs. And this ability immediately propels them into a very exclusive list of animals studied for their amazing self healing powers
Creatures like the axolotl, some starfish species, some salamander species, newts and flatworms display amazing regeneration. Sharks famously cannot regenerate their fins and this is the first time this ability has been documented in the shark family. This discovery is a very unique ability that helps us understand these amazing, gentle giants more. Much like sharks and whales, they are on the top of the aquatic foodchain and knowing that they possess incredible healing powers will help us appreciate and study these fascinating creatures.
“By using our new method, we were able to determine that these sharks can heal from very serious injuries in timeframes of weeks and months” said lead author Freya Womersley, a PhD student with University of Southampton in the press release. “This means that we now have a better understanding of injury and healing dynamics, which can be very important for conservation management,” she added.
The spots on the whale shark are a unique pattern for every individual. It is used to identify individuals for research and also helped researchers in this team to follow individual whale sharks over time and gather data.
The team discovered that these spots regenerated when the skin healed, suggesting a deeper significance. The spots could be an identifier or used to attract mates. For a fish this size According to researchers studying whale sharks, the spots also have stripes behindld them, with brighter and duller spots. Being a filter feeder, the whale shark slowly peeruses the currents with its large mouth agape. The use filters that line the inside of their mouth to capture plankton and small krill, which forms a majority of its diet. The spots could help camouflage when they are slowly drifting through the currents. During feeding hours, whale sharks are vulnerable to attack from above or below. The spots on ita body mimic light bounding off the water or bubbles and help disguise the whale shark from predators.
The researchers also used photographs from two tourist spots in the Indian Ocean (site chosen for study) taken by tourists. They used the spots to identify species using an online database and gathered data over time, tracking them as the scars faded. Studying a creature that lives in the depths of the sea is tough without equipment. But whale sharks in tourists spots have become familiar with boats and tourists. They do not flee and this greatly increases the chances of spotting the same individual regularly.
Reason for Injury
The popularity of this species in animal tourism, according to the research team, is a reason these sharks are coming more in contact with boats and ships. The increase in boat traffic across important sections of their habitat increases the likelihood of collision and subsequent injury.
This discovery is immense because this endangered species, being a popular tourist attraction in many areas, gains more prominence and efforts will be made to study them further which will help conservation efforts. Also, learning more about a creatures intrinsic and unique qualities funnels more funds via research efforts which will trickle into conservation efforts. This will help protect the habitat and raise awareness about an endangered species.
“These baseline findings provide us with a preliminary understanding of wound healing in this species” said lead author Freya Womersley. The team also highlighted their main objective which was to monitor a previously overlooked species to gain more knowledge about their behavior and also the injuries and scars. “We wanted to determine if there was a way of quantifying what many researchers were anecdotally witnessing in the field, and so we came up with a technique of monitoring and analysing injuries over time,” she added.
The discovery comes at a time when conservation is the need of the hour. Discoveries like this help shine a light in underappreciated and overlooked speices that need our help. Through human efforts, we have seen a positive impact in various animal repopulation projects. The finding that whale sharks can regrow fins will help us gain some respect and knowledge of these amazing animals.