Whale sharks are gentle giants of the ocean. They share their name with true whales due to their size, and they only eat the smallest of creatures. They do this through filter feeding rather than biting or chewing prey.
If they don’t need teeth for food, do whale sharks have teeth at all?
Whale sharks do have teeth, but they’re very tiny and vestigial. Whale sharks filter feeders and are too large to have many predators, so these teeth aren’t useful to them. Even so, they can have over 3,000 teeth in its mouth. They also have other teeth-like structures all over their bodies – including their eyes.
Whale Sharks Filter Feed
Despite their name, whale sharks have no genetic relation to whales, which are mammals. Whale sharks are cartilaginous fish, like all sharks, and belong in the Orectolobiformes order.
However, like some whales, whale sharks are filter feeders. That is, they take in enormous amounts of water, then filter it for small animals they can eat.
Only three species of shark use this method of feeding. These other filter feeders are the basking shark and the megamouth shark.
The throats of whale sharks have filtering pads that cover the entrance. These pads have pores that are only millimeters wide; they act like a strainer or sieve for the water.
The sharks suck water at high speeds into their mouth while they float in the water. The water filters through their throat pads, leaving behind the solid prey.
How Much Do Whale Sharks Eat?
The mouth of a whale shark can stretch open to four feet wide. They can filter almost 1600 gallons (over 6,000 liters) of water in an hour.
This is necessary because whale sharks are the world’s largest fish (hence sharing the “whale” in their name). They spend an average of 7.5 hours a day feeding to support their size.
In a single hour, they eat between 1,467 and 2,763 grams of plankton on average.
Whale sharks eat more than plankton, though. While filtering, they can ingest small jellyfish, crab larvae, and krill.
Everything they eat has to be small because of two factors: their throat and their teeth. A whale shark’s throat is only the size of a coin. Their teeth aren’t much bigger.
They Have Tiny Teeth
All sharks are born with teeth, and they continue to replace themselves throughout their entire lives.
Whale sharks don’t bite or chew their food, though. They rely on filter feeding to survive instead. They do have teeth, but they’re very tiny.
A whale shark has over 3,000 small teeth. These teeth form over 300 rows in their mouths.
However, these are vestigial teeth, possibly remnants of a previous evolutionary stage of whale sharks. They have little use for whale sharks since they are now filter feeders.
The teeth of a whale shark have hook shapes and are homodont. This means they all look the same, only differing in size due to their location on the jaw.
In addition to their feeding methods, whale sharks don’t need large teeth for protection. Whale sharks don’t have many predators because of their sheer size.
Blue sharks and blue marlin may sometimes go after whale sharks, but only smaller individuals.
Whale Sharks Have Teeth-Like Scales And Teeth On Their Eyes
The teeth in their mouths may not be useful, but whale sharks have other teeth-like structures that are.
Like all sharks, whale sharks have scales that are different from other fish. They have placoid scales, or “dermal denticles.”
The literal translation of the name of these scales is “skin teeth.” They have this name because they share the same structure as the teeth in a shark’s mouth. These scales help whale sharks swim faster and protect them from damage.
Most notably, these sharks are even on a whale shark’s eyes, a very vulnerable spot. The eyes of a whale shark poke out from their heads rather than lying flat.
These sharks also have no eyelids to protect them from their harsh environment.
Scientists believe that eyes are vital to a whale shark’s survival. The animals have these small teeth to ensure their protection.
Whale sharks can have as many as 3,000 of these teeth scales around their iris.
A whale shark has little use for its teeth. They use a filtering method to gather food and can only eat small creatures such as plankton and shrimp.
However, they do still have teeth, and a lot of them. A whale shark has over 3,000 teeth in 30 rows inside of their mouths. They’re vestigial teeth that are very small and uniform, likely leftover from a previous evolutionary stage.
Whale sharks also have more useful teeth elsewhere on their body. Their scales have the same structure as teeth in a mouth, and they offer protection and speed while swimming. Whale sharks also have protective teeth around their eyes.
So not only do whale sharks have teeth in their mouths, but they also have them all over their bodies. But only the teeth outside of their mouths are of much use to them.