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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 215:275-282 (2001)  -  doi:10.3354/meps215275

Whale sharks Rhincodon typus aggregate to feed on fish spawn in Belize

William D. Heyman1,*, Rachel T. Graham2, Björn Kjerfve3, Robert E. Johannes4

1The Nature Conservancy, 62 Front Street, Punta Gorda, Belize
2Environment Department, University of York, c/o Box 170, Punta Gorda, Belize
3Department of Geological Sciences and Marine Science Program, University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina 29208, USA
4R. E. Johannes Pty Ltd, 8 Tyndall Court, Bonnet Hill, Tasmania 7053, Australia

ABSTRACT: This study confirms reports by fishermen of a large and predictable aggregation of whale sharks Rhincodon typus along the Belize Barrier Reef. Although whale sharks are rarely sighted at this location during most of the year, we counted as many as 25 whale sharks in a 50 m diameter area on 1 occasion and tagged 6 sharks during a 22 min period on another. The whale shark aggregation coincides seasonally and temporally with a multispecies reef-fish spawning aggregation at a reef promontory, Gladden Spit, at sunset, during the full and last-quarter moon periods of April and May each year. We report here, for the first time, that whale sharks feed on the freshly released spawn of cubera snappers Lutjanus cyanopterus and dog snappers L. jocu (Lutjanidae), and have documented the phenomenon with still and digital video photography of hundreds of feeding events. There is consensus locally that this remarkable interaction is in need of immediate protection from overfishing of snappers and unregulated tourism development. Our continued investigations are providing management recommendations for a new marine reserve at the site.

KEY WORDS: Whale shark · Rhincodon typus · Spawning aggregation · Feeding · Snapper · Lutjanidae · Marine reserve

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