hugabug 8: Whale shark megamamma

photo by Alex Mustard

A whale shark known to science as the “megamamma supreme” carried a belly full of over 300 babies.
Listen to find out how and why.

Right-click or Command+click to download

Music in this show:
1. King Kong, “Scooba dooba diver”
2. Arnold McCuller, “The whale have swallowed me”
3. Hazmat Modine, “The tide”
4. Björk, “Moon”
5. Raymond Scott, “Space mystery (montage)”
6. Monster Rally, “Surf Erie”
7. Raymond Scott, “Space mystery (montage)”
8. Gaby Kerpel, “Toritos”
9. Arnold McCuller, “Don’t go nowhere”
10. King Kong, “Scooba dooba diver”
11. Spanglish Fly, “Let my people bugalú” (Clay Holley and Jeff Dynamite remix)

— — — — —

This episode of hugabug is dedicated to moms, who know how it feels to carry an organism to term in their belly. That sounds tough. But let me just tell you this–

Whale sharks have been known to carry a belly full of over 300 babies.

Whale sharks are the biggest fish in the world. But despite their large size, they’re mysteriously hard to observe. And they’ve kept their love life private; no one has ever witnessed whale shark sex.

A single immensely pregnant whale shark taught us almost everything we know about reproduction in the species. She’s known to science as the “megamamma supreme” [1]. Fishermen harpooned her off the coast of Taiwan when hunting whale sharks was legal there, back in 1995.

The megamamma was a hefty pregnant whale shark. Although she wasn’t quite as big as a school bus, a peek into her stomach showed that more than 300 baby whale sharks traveled inside her belly. No, the megamamma’s pregnant belly would not suddenly deflate as hundreds of baby sharks popped out simultaneously. The whale shark pups shared the same womb, but they weren’t all the same age.

from Baughman 1955 (Copeia)

And it’s a good thing that whale sharks are not the bitey kind. In the pregnant bellies of the more vicious and toothy shark species, an embryo will eat its brothers and sisters in the womb, and only the most aggressive will emerge. But as the most gigantic fish in the ocean, the whale shark eats the smallest creatures without using any teeth. So whale shark pups were safe from cannibals inside the megamamma.

Outside of her belly, though, in the open ocean, there was danger. The enormous number of babies she carried probably indicates that not many of them would survive.

All 300 shark pups had the same father and probably were conceived in a single mating event. And because the brothers and sisters in the megamamma’s belly were different ages, it looks like the megamamma supreme stored the sperm and used it gradually to produce over 300 babies.

For a whale shark, saving sperm is a useful talent when romance happens rarely in the open ocean.

Now honor the endurance it must take to carry one–let alone 300–babies in a belly. Give your megamamma supreme a whale-shark-sized hug. Then swim to the surface, dry yourself off, and hug a bug.

— — — — —

Learn more by exploring the internet:

Great footage of whale sharks

It’s a long video of a swell shark (not a whale shark), but this one is great if you want to know what a shark egg looks like.

Regardless of what anyone says, I remain skeptical that this underwater photo shoot, involving whale sharks and swimming models, really happened.

photo by Shawn Heinrichs

— — — — —

If you’re looking for a good place to go snorkel with whale sharks and SCUBA dive with manta rays, gotta tell you that I love staying at my cousin’s resort in the Philippines. I swam with a male whale shark (dove under his belly to see the cookie-dough-tube-sized claspers) for 15 or 20 minutes. We saw 7 whale sharks on that day; on a previous day, we spotted 2.

Swimming with a whale shark is the best gift you can give yourself.

— — — — —

[1] ^ Seriously. Joung et al. 1996 (Environmental Biology of Fishes)


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