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Basking shark


Basking shark

Basking shark
Temporal range: Early Oligocene–Present[1]
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Chondrichthyes
Subclass: Elasmobranchii
Superorder: Selachimorpha
Order: Lamniformes
Family: Cetorhinidae
T. N. Gill, 1862
Genus: Cetorhinus
Blainville, 1816
Species: C. maximus
Binomial name
Cetorhinus maximus
(Gunnerus, 1765)
Range of the basking shark

Cetorhinus blainvillei Capello, 1869
Cetorhinus maximus infanuncula Deinse & Adriani, 1953
Cetorhinus normani Siccardi, 1961
Hanovera aurata van Beneden, 1871
Halsydrus pontoppidiani* Neill, 1809
Polyprosopus macer Couch, 1862
Scoliophis atlanticus* Anonymous, 1817
Selachus pennantii Cornish, 1885
Squalis gunneri* Blainville, 1816
Squalis shavianus* Blainville, 1816
Squalus cetaceus Gronow, 1854
Squalus elephas Lesueur, 1822
Squalus gunnerianus Blainville, 1810
Squalus homianus Blainville, 1810
Squalus isodus Macri, 1819
Squalus maximus Gunnerus, 1765
Squalus pelegrinus Blainville, 1810
Squalus rashleighanus Couch, 1838
Squalus rhinoceros* DeKay, 1842
Squalus rostratus Macri, 1819
Tetraoras angiova* Rafinesque, 1810
Tetroras angiova* Rafinesque, 1810
Tetroras maccoyi Barrett, 1933

* ambiguous synonym

The basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) is the second largest living fish, after the whale shark, and one of three plankton-eating sharks besides the whale shark and megamouth shark. It is a cosmopolitan migratory species, found in all the world's temperate oceans. It is a slow-moving filter feeder and has anatomical adaptations for filter feeding, such as a greatly enlarged mouth and highly developed gill rakers. Its snout is conical and the gill slits extend around the top and bottom of its head. The gill rakers, dark and bristle-like, are used to catch plankton as water filters through the mouth and over the gills. The basking shark is usually greyish-brown, with mottled skin. The caudal (tail) fin has a strong lateral keel and a crescent shape. The teeth of the basking shark are very small and numerous, and often number one hundred per row. The teeth have a single conical cusp, are curved backwards, and are the same on both the upper and lower jaws. Adults typically reach 6-8 m (20-26 ft.) in length.

Basking sharks are believed to overwinter in deep waters. They may be found in either small schools or alone. Small schools in the Bay of Fundy and the Hebrides have been seen swimming nose to tail in circles in what may be a form of mating behaviour. Despite their large size and threatening appearance, basking sharks are not aggressive and are harmless to humans.

It has long been a commercially important fish, as a source of food, shark fin, animal feed, and shark liver oil. Overexploitation has reduced its populations to the point where some have disappeared and others need protection.


  • Taxonomy 1
  • Range and habitat 2
  • Anatomy and appearance 3
  • Life history 4
    • Migration 4.1
    • Interactions 4.2
    • Predators 4.3
    • Diet 4.4
    • Reproduction 4.5
  • Conservation 5
  • Importance to humans 6
  • Basking sharks and cryptozoology 7
  • See also 8
  • References 9
  • External links 10


This shark is called the "basking" shark because it is most often observed when feeding at the surface and appears to be basking in the warmer water there. It is the only member of the family Cetorhinidae, part of the mackerel shark order Lamniformes. Gunnerus was the first to describe and name the species Cetorhinus maximus from a specimen found in Norway. The genus name Cetorhinus comes from the Greek ketos which means marine monster or whale and rhinos meaning nose; the species name maximus is from Latin and means "greatest". In the following centuries there were more attempts at naming: Squalus isodus, in 1819 by Macri; Squalus elephas, by Lesueur in 1822; Squalus rashleighanus, by Couch in 1838; Squalus cetaceus, by Gronow in 1854; Cetorhinus blainvillei by Capello in 1869; Selachus pennantii, by Cornish in 1885; Cetorhinus maximus infanuncula, by Deinse and Adriani in 1953; and finally Cetorhinus maximus normani, by Siccardi in 1961.[3] Other names include bone shark, elephant shark, hoe-mother (sometimes contracted to homer), sail-fish, and sun-fish.[4]

Range and habitat

The basking shark is a coastal-pelagic shark found worldwide in boreal to warm-temperate waters around the continental shelves. It prefers 8.0 to 14.5°C (46 to 58°F) temperatures, but has been confirmed to cross the much-warmer waters at the equator.[5] It is often seen close to land, including bays with narrow openings. The shark follows plankton concentrations in the water column, so is often visible at the surface. It characteristically migrates with the seasons.[6] The basking shark is found from the surface down to at least 910 m (2,990 ft).[7]

June 23, 2015, a 20-foot (6.3-meter) long, 7,716 pounds (3,500 kilograms) basking shark was caught accidentally by a fishing trawler in the Bass strait near Portland, Victoria, in Southeast Australia, the first basking shark caught in the region since the 1930s, and only the third reported in the region in 160 years.[8] The whole shark was donated to the Victoria Museum for research, instead of the fins being sold for use in shark fin soup.[9][10] (Video)

Anatomy and appearance

The largest accurately measured specimen was trapped in a herring net in the Bay of Fundy, Canada, in 1851.[11] Its total length was 12.27 m (40.3 ft), and it weighed an estimated 19 t (19 long tons; 21 short tons).[12] Dubious reports from Norway mention three basking sharks over 12 m (39 ft), the largest at 13.7 m (45 ft), during 1884 to 1905,[13] these are dubious because few anywhere near that size have been caught in the area since. On average, the adult basking shark reaches a length of 6–8 m (20–26 ft) and weighs about 5.2 t (5.1 long tons; 5.7 short tons).[12] Some specimens still surpass 9–10 m (30–33 ft), but after years of large-scale fishing, specimens of this size have become rare.

Drawing of shark in profile, showing split tail, and five dark bands that encircle the body between the head and pectoral bands
Male basking shark

They possess the typical shark lamniform body plan and have been mistaken for great white sharks.[14] The two species can be easily distinguished by the basking shark's cavernous jaw, up to 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in width, longer and more obvious gill slits that nearly encircle the head and are accompanied by well-developed gill rakers, smaller eyes, and smaller average girth. Great whites possess large, dagger-like teeth; basking shark teeth are much smaller 5–6 mm (0.20–0.24 in) and hooked; only the first three or four rows of the upper jaw and six or seven rows of the lower jaw function. In behaviour, the great white is an active predator of large animals and not a filter feeder.

Other distinctive characteristics include a strongly keeled caudal peduncle, highly textured skin covered in placoid scales and a mucus layer, a pointed snout—distinctly hooked in younger specimens—and a lunate caudal fin.[15] In large individuals, the dorsal fin may flop to one side when above the surface. Colouration is highly variable (and likely dependent on observation conditions and the individual's condition): commonly, the colouring is dark brown to black or blue dorsally, fading to a dull white ventrally. The sharks are often noticeably scarred, possibly through encounters with lampreys or cookiecutter sharks. The basking shark's liver, which may account for 25% of its body weight, runs the entire length of the abdominal cavity and is thought to play a role in buoyancy regulation and long-term energy storage.

Life history

Shot of head in profile with partially opened mouth
Head of a basking shark

Basking sharks do not hibernate, and are active year-round.[16] In winter, basking sharks move to depths of 900 m (3,000 ft) to feed on deep-water plankton.


Satellite tagging confirmed basking sharks move thousands of kilometres during the winter, seeking plankton blooms. They shed and renew their gill rakers in an ongoing process, rather than over one short period.[7]

A 2009 study tagged 25 sharks off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and indicated at least some migrate south in the winter. Remaining at depths between 200 and 1,000 metres (660 and 3,280 ft) for many weeks, the tagged sharks crossed the equator to reach Brazil. One individual spent a month near the mouth of the Amazon River. They may undertake this journey to aid reproduction.[7][17]

They are slow-moving sharks (feeding at about 2 kn (3.7 km/h; 2.3 mph)) and do not evade approaching boats (unlike great white sharks). They are not attracted to chum.

Though the basking shark is large and slow, it can breach, jumping entirely out of the water.[18] This behaviour could be an attempt to dislodge parasites or commensals.[6] Such interpretations are speculative, however, and difficult to verify; breaching in large marine animals such as whales and sharks might equally well be intraspecific threat displays of size and strength.


A basking shark filter feeding

Basking sharks are social animals and form sex-segregated schools, usually in small numbers (three or four), but reportedly up to 100 individuals.[6] Their social behaviour is thought to follow visual cues. Although the basking shark's eyes are small, they are fully developed. They may visually inspect boats, possibly mistaking them for other basking sharks.[19] Females are thought to seek shallow water to give birth.


Basking sharks have few predators. White sharks have been reported to scavenge on the remains of these sharks. Killer whales have been observed feeding on basking sharks off California and New Zealand. Lampreys are often seen attached to them, although they are unlikely to be able to cut through the shark's thick skin.


Basking shark filter feeding
Basking shark filter feeding at Dursey Sound

The basking shark is a passive feeder, filtering zooplankton, small fish, and invertebrates from up to 2,000 short tons (1,800 t) of water per hour.[3] They feed at or close to the surface with their mouths wide open and gill rakers erect. Unlike the megamouth shark and whale shark, the basking shark does not appear to actively seek quarry, but it does possess large olfactory bulbs that may guide it. It relies only on the water it pushes through its gills by swimming; the megamouth shark and whale shark can suck or pump water through their gills.[3]


Basking sharks are ovoviviparous: the developing embryos first rely on a yolk sac, with no placental connection. Their seemingly useless teeth may play a role before birth in helping them feed on the mother's unfertilized ova (a behaviour known as oophagy).[20] In females, only the right ovary appears to function.

Gestation is thought to span over a year (perhaps two to three years), with a small, though unknown, number of young born fully developed at 1.5–2 m (4 ft 11 in–6 ft 7 in). Only one pregnant female is known to have been caught; she was carrying six unborn young.[21] Mating is thought to occur in early summer and birthing in late summer, following the female's movement into shallow waters.

The age of maturity is thought to be between the ages of six and 13 and at a length of 4.6–6 m (15–20 ft). Breeding frequency is thought to be two to four years.

The exact lifespan of the basking shark is unknown, but experts estimate to be about 50 years.[22][23]


The eastern north Pacific Ocean population is a U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service Species of Concern, one of those species about which the U.S. Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has some concerns regarding status and threats, but for which insufficient information is available to indicate a need to list the species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA).[24]

The IUCN Red List indicates this as a Vulnerable species.

Importance to humans

Historically, the basking shark has been a staple of fisheries because of its slow swimming speed, placid nature, and previously abundant numbers. Commercially, it was put to many uses: the flesh for food and fishmeal, the hide for leather, and its large liver (which has a high squalene content) for oil.[6] It is currently fished mainly for its fins (for shark fin soup). Parts (such as cartilage) are also used in traditional Chinese medicine and as an aphrodisiac in Japan, further adding to demand.

As a result of rapidly declining numbers, the basking shark has been protected in some territorial waters and trade in its products is restricted in many countries under CITES. It is fully protected in the UK, Malta, New Zealand,[25] Florida and USA Gulf, and since 2008, it is subject to a target fishing and landed bycatch ban within EU waters.[21] As of March 2010, it was also listed under Annex I of the CMS Migratory Sharks Memorandum of Understanding.[26]

Once considered a nuisance along the Canadian Pacific coast, basking sharks were the target of a government eradication programme from 1945 to 1970. As of 2008, efforts were under way to determine whether any sharks still lived in the area and monitor their potential recovery.[27]

It is tolerant of boats and divers approaching it, and may even circle divers, making it an important draw for dive tourism in areas where it is common.

In 2015, a 6.3 meter basking shark was caught by a trawler in seas near Portland, in Southeastern Australia.[28]

Basking sharks and cryptozoology

The "wonderful fish" described in Harper's Weekly on October 24, 1868, was likely the remains of a basking shark.

On several occasions, "globster" corpses initially thought to be sea serpents or plesiosaurs have later been identified as likely to be the decomposing carcasses of basking sharks, as in the Stronsay beast and the Zuiyo-maru cases.[29]

See also


  1. ^ Sepkoski, Jack (2002). "A compendium of fossil marine animal genera (Chondrichthyes entry)". Bulletins of American Paleontology 364: 560. Retrieved 2008-01-09. 
  2. ^ Fowler (2005). "Cetorhinus maximus".  
  3. ^ a b c C. Knickle, L. Billingsley & K. DiVittorio. "Biological Profiles basking shark". Florida Museum of Natural History. Archived from the original on 21 August 2006. Retrieved 2006-08-24. 
  4. ^ Yarrell, William. (1836). . Volume II.A History of British Fishes John Van Voorst, London. p. 397.
  5. ^ "Simon Berrow: How do you save a shark you know nothing about?".  
  6. ^ a b c d Leonard J. V. Compagno (1984). Sharks of the World: An annotated and illustrated catalogue of shark species known to date. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 
  7. ^ a b c Skomal, Gregory B.; Zeeman, Stephen I.; Chisholm, John H.; Summers, Erin L.; Walsh, Harvey J.; McMahon, Kelton W.; Thorrold, Simon R. "Transequatorial Migrations by Basking Sharks in the Western Atlantic Ocean". Current Biology. 
  8. ^ Howard, Brian Clark; 23, National Geographic PUBLISHED June. "Rare, Huge Basking Shark Caught Off Australia". National Geographic News. Retrieved 2015-06-23. 
  9. ^ "Rare 3500kg basking shark caught is donated to science". Retrieved 2015-06-23. 
  10. ^ "Australia: Rare 6.3m Basking shark donated to science instead of being sold for its fins". Retrieved 2015-06-23. 
  11. ^ "Sharks in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick". Retrieved 17 October 2014. 
  12. ^ a b Wood, Gerald (1983). The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. p. 256.  
  13. ^ Cetorhinus maximusBasking shark in Henry B. Bigelow, William C. Schroeder, Fishes of the Gulf of Maine, 1953, p. 28.
  14. ^ "Basking Shark". Retrieved 17 October 2014. 
  15. ^ "Basking shark". Retrieved 17 October 2014. 
  16. ^ Basking Shark
  17. ^ "Giant Shark Mystery Solved: Unexpected Hideout Found". 2010-10-28. Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  18. ^ Pelagic Shark Research Foundation. "PSRF Shark Image Library". PSRF. Retrieved 2006-06-01. 
  19. ^ Martin, R. Aidan. "A Curious Basker". SHARK-L. Archived from the original on 2004-10-20. Retrieved 2006-08-03. 
  20. ^ "Martin, R. Aidan". "Biology of the Basking Shark(Cetorhinus maximus)". "ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research". Archived from the original on 28 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-08. 
  21. ^ a b The Shark Trust. "Basking Shark Factsheet". The Shark Trust. Retrieved 2006-07-07. 
  22. ^ Archipelagos Wildlife Library. "Basking Shark ( Cetorhinus maximus )". Archipelagos Wildlife Library. Retrieved 2013-04-30. 
  23. ^ Born Free Foundation. "Basking Shark Facts". Born Free Foundation. Retrieved 2013-04-30. 
  24. ^ Species of Concern NOAA
  25. ^ "Fishing (Reporting) Regulations 2001, Schedule 3, Part 2C Protected Fish Species". NZ Government. 
  27. ^ Colonist, Times (2008-08-21). "B.C. scientists hunt for elusive shark". Retrieved 2012-08-15. 
  28. ^ "Rare, giant basking shark caught off Australian coast". CNN. 
  29. ^ Kuban, Glen. "Sea-monster or Shark?: An Analysis of a Supposed Plesiosaur Carcass Netted in 1977". 
General references
  • Froese, Rainer and Pauly, Daniel, eds. (2005). "Cetorhinus maximus in FishBase. 10 2005 version.
  • "Cetorhinus maximus".  
  • David A Ebert, Sharks, Rays and Chimaeras of California, ISBN 0-520-23484-7
  • Cetorhinus maximusBasking shark, MarineBio"
  • Marine Conservation Society Basking shark page
  • FAO Figis Species Fact Sheet for basking shark

External links

  • Basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus MarineBio"
  • Irish Basking Shark Project
  • BBC Wildlife Finder - video news and news from the BBC archive
  • ARKive entry on the Basking Shark
  • Basking Shark Profile and Photos
  • Basking Shark Project
  • Fisheries & Oceans Canada - Basking sharks on the west coast of Canada
  • Basking Sharks in the Isle of Man
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