Marine Life

Study sheds light on genetic population connectivity of whale sharks

Written by Oceanographic Staff

The study found that the ancestors of whale sharks in Panama might come from distant waters, thus providing important data for conservation efforts.

The charismatic whale shark, the largest fish on the planet, can be found in all tropical oceans. Even though it is a highly migratory species, little is known about how different whale shark populations interact with each other. A new study, conducted by marine biologist Héctor Guzmán, Caitlin Beaver of the U.S. Geological Survey and Edgardo Díaz-Ferguson of Coiba Scientific Station and published in Frontiers in Marine Science, now sheds a light on the genetic population connectivity of whale sharks.

After collecting tissue samples from 21 solitary sharks swimming around Coiba National Park and the Gulf of Gulf of Chiriquí in the Pacific in Panama, the research team set out to conduct genetic analyses. They found that whale shark genetics were highly diverse, while similarities to whale shark populations in the Western Indian Ocean, Mexico, the Gulf of California and the Arabian Gulf were recorded. According to the study, “genetic diversity among samples was high, with five new haplotypes and nine polymorphic sites identified among the 15 sequences”.

The study results suggest that whale sharks travel long distances, while shedding light on genetic diversity and population connectivity. Ultimately it might help conservation measures and suggests that marine corridors could foster conservation measures for the species. Guzman said: “Imagine Qatar: a possible journey of more than 27,000 kilometers from Panama for this species. This observed connectivity amazed us, revealing a real political challenge for the protection and conservation of whale sharks. It seems no longer a local or regional concern, but a global issue.”

Diaz-Ferguson added: “With this publication we contribute to unravel migration and genetic connectivity patterns of transient whale sharks, evidencing the importance of Pacific Panama as a key area for connectivity of the species.”

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Photography courtesy of Unsplash.

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