Scientists have recorded the world's largest gathering of whale sharks - the largest fish in the seas - who have got together around Mexico's Yucutan Peninsula for a very good reason: to eat.
The popular image of the whale shark is of a lone wanderer, scientists from the Smithsonian Institute have found that when conditions are right these monsters of the deep are more than happy to spend time together in very large groups.
(Caption: This is an aerial photograph of whale sharks feeding at the Afuera aggregation in August 2009. Credit: Oscar Reyes)
By observing from the surface of the sea and the air scientists have counted up to 420 whale sharks feasting on their favoured diet of tiny sea creatures.
''Whale sharks are the largest species of fish in the world, yet they mostly feed on the smallest organisms in the ocean, such as zooplankton,'' said Mike Maslanka, biologist at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and head of the Department of Nutrition Sciences. ''Our research revealed that in this case, the hundreds of whale sharks had gathered to feed on dense patches of fish eggs.''
(Caption: Aerial photograph of whale sharks feeding at the Afuera aggregation in August 2009. Credit: Oscar Reyes)
At more than 40 feet long, whale sharks are unlikely sources of mystery; scientists know relatively little about them despite their home waters encompassing all of the world's tropical and sub-tropical ocean areas.
The unfortunate providers of this giant dinner party, named by scientists the Afuera aggregation, are little tunny, whose eggs are providing the sustenance.
Close to the tunny feast, another group of whale sharks are feeding on copepods (small crustaceans) and shrimp.
''With two significant whale shark aggregation areas and at the very least one active spawning ground for little tunny, the north-eastern Yucatan marine region is a critical habitat that deserves more concerted conservation effort,'' said Maslanka.
Image Credit: © Crisod