The whale shark carries similar characteristics of all 33 shark species in the Order Orectolobiformes, defined as sharks having two dorsal fins, without spines; a very short mouth which is well in front of the eyes; special nostrals; large spiracles; and the fifth gill slit overlapping the fourth behind the origin of the pectoral fin. Other sharks in this family include nurse sharks and carpet sharks.
The whale shark is the only species within the Family “Rhincodontidae”. However, recent research has led scientists to theorize that whale sharks found in the Atlantic may be a separate population than the Pacific. Due to the fact that whale sharks favor temperate waters, it is unlikely they would migrate around the horn of South America. Ongoing tagging, photo identification, and DNA samples will hopefully allow researchers to determine if in fact there are separate species or if they do migrate from the Caribbean to Africa to the Pacific.
Rhincodon typus is translated from Greek meaning “rasp tooth”. Dr. Andrew Smith was the first scientist to document the existence of the whale shark in writing to the rest of the world. He named the large shark for the thousands of tiny teeth lining the upper and lower jaw. The developed worlds eyes were opened to an amazing creature for the first time. Over 150 years later researchers are still trying to unfold this great giants mysteries.