Whale Shark Research
Georgia Aquarium has carried out research on whale sharks since 2003 with a number of partners including the Mexican government, Mote Marine Laboratory, University of South Florida, Georgia State University, Emory University and the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2009 the Aquarium became official partners in Project Domino, a consortium led by the Mexican department of protected areas (CONANP) that studies, monitors and conserves whale sharks in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula. Based in part on the data produced by this collaboration, in June 2009 the Mexican Government declared the Whale Shark Biosphere Reserve off the northern tip of the Yucatan. This new protected area is one of the first in the world to specifically target whale shark conservation, and the Aquarium is excited to have contributed to this important whale shark conservation initiative.
In past years the Aquarium’s field research on whale sharks has focused on working out how many whale sharks visit the Yucatan, what they feed on while they are there and where they go when they leave. Satellite and visual tags attached to the animals provided most of the early data, but recently we have put more effort into aerial surveys that allow researchers to cover a much larger area. This allows us to see the gathering of whale sharks relative to geographic features and the distribution of other animals that can also be seen from the air, such as manta rays. These whale sharks studies and other research have shown that the Yucatan is a phenomenal place for whale shark aggregations: at times, hundreds of whale sharks can gather in the same place to feed on plankton and fish eggs.
In 2010, we continued these field studies and started a new initiative to try to understand what odor chemicals whale sharks use to sniff out patches of food in the open ocean. The tracking of animals using satellite tags took on new significance in 2010 because many of the animals we tagged in previous years subsequently traveled into the Gulf of Mexico. There they may have encountered oil plumes associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Having whale sharks in an aquarium setting is a fantastic research opportunity so we continue to study the whale sharks in the Ocean Voyager exhibit, including their growth, behavior, health and genetics. Recent advances have included a detailed exploration of the chemistry of their blood using cutting-edge analytical techniques at Georgia Tech and an exciting program to study the genomics of whale sharks based on tissue samples collected from animals at the Aquarium. By comparing the genomics of the Aquarium animals (which are from Taiwan) with samples collected from free-ranging whale sharks in Mexico, our scientists and their collaborators will be able to tell whether whale sharks form one big population in the whole world, or whether differences exist between Pacific and Atlantic populations. Understanding what makes the largest species of a group special provides a reference point for broadening our scientific knowledge or many other aquatic animals (scientists call these comparative analyses). This will allow us to ask and answer questions including: what piece of DNA makes a whale shark unique, how is it different from other sharks, how are sharks different from other vertebrates including us, and what genes are associated with its unusual size and eating behaviors. Our partners at the Emory University Core DNA Sequencing Facility and Roche454 have helped us secure more funds to continue this project. It is our hope with continued support from our partners and grassroots donors that we will be able to continue our tradition of leading in groundbreaking whale shark research.