These giant sharks are 3 times as tall as a giraffe – and can lurk for 130 years, research finds

 

In this  May, 30, 2010 photo, a whale shark swims in the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Inside a few small vials at the world's largest aquarium is the key to unlocking the mysteries of the planet's biggest fish. Scientists at the Georgia Aquarium and Emory University are teaming up to produce the first genome of the whale shark, bidding to catalog the DNA of a fish that long has puzzled researchers. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

The largest fish in the sea can be found off the coast of the Carolinas — an enormous shark.

Whale sharks are the largest known fish species in existence today, but new research suggests the sharks can grow even larger than previously thought and can live more than a century.

Scientists observed whale sharks 18 feet to 40 feet or longer, and calculated that they lived to be about 70 years old on average, according to National Geographic. They can weigh more than 20 tons.

New research in the Maldives, published in the Marine and Freshwater Research journal this week shows whale sharks can grow even larger and live much longer than previously thought.

Whale sharks are an endangered species whose growth and reproduction are poorly understood, according to the research.

Traditionally, the size of whale sharks had been determined using vertebral samples from dead animals, but that was limiting for research purposes.

So the group of researchers used noninvasive techniques to investigate the growth of whale sharks in the South Ari Atoll, Maldives, an area that may be a nursery ground for the sharks.

Scientists analyzed repeat measurements of free swimming whale sharks over a 10-year period.

Total lengths of the sharks were estimated using three methods: visual estimates (which often underestimated the size of the sharks), and laser and tape measurements, which yielded similar results to each other.

After hundreds of shark encounters, researchers estimated that the sharks can live to be 100 to 130 years old and can grow between 50 and 62 feet long at those ages.

“This study suggests that, like some other shark species, we may have been underestimating age by quite a bit,” said Alistair Dove, a marine biologist and conservationist at the Georgia Aquarium. “We used to think whale sharks lived to be 75 to 100.”

But these numbers only show that more research about whale sharks is needed to better understand them.

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