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Feeding habits of the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) inferred by fatty acid profiles in the northern Mexican Caribbean


Whale shark (Rhincodon typus, Smith, 1828) is an endangered species with anthropogenic pressures due to increasing demand of encounter tourism activities. Research efforts to identify management and conservation strategies for this species are needed. The Northern Mexican Caribbean is one of the most important feeding aggregation sites of whale sharks worldwide. In this study, Mexican Caribbean whale shark feeding habits are assessed by means of fatty acid (FA) signature analysis, a biochemical non-destructive technique widely applied in trophic ecology studies. Sub-dermal tissue biopsies of 68 whale sharks and samples of their potential prey (zooplankton) were collected during 2010 and 2011 in two areas with high R. typus abundance. Zooplankton samples (n = 17) were divided in two categories: mixed zooplankton (several groups of zooplankton) and fish eggs (> 95% of sample components were fish eggs). FA profiles of whale shark tissue sampled between years showed significant variability; while there was no intraspecific differences in FA signature related to sex, size and location. FA profiles of whale sharks and their potential prey were dominated by saturated fatty acids (SFA). R. typus FA signature was significantly different from that of mixed zooplankton; on the other hand, whale shark and fish egg FA profiles formed groups with overlapping values and registered high levels of oleic acid. PUFA average ω3/ ω6 ratio on whale shark FA profiles for both years was below 1. Arachidonic acid (ARA) percentage was higher in whale shark biopsies (13.2% in 2010, 6.8% in 2011) compared to values observed in fish eggs (2.0%) and mixed zooplankton (1.4%). Similarity between FA profiles of whale sharks and fish eggs, low levels of bacterial FA found in R. typus biopsies, as well as whale shark feeding behavior observations in the study area, suggest that R. typus is feeding mainly on surface zooplankton in Mexican Caribbean; however, elevated ARA percentages in whale shark samples may indicate that this species has complementary feeding sources, such as demersal zooplankton, which has been reported in other aggregation sites. Results obtained contribute to the knowledge of the whale shark trophic ecology in the area, but are inconclusive. Further studies are recommended to evaluate whale shark FA profiles from different tissues (muscle or blood); also, broader information is needed about zooplankton FA signature in the study area.

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We would like to thank Santiago Capella for his assistance with the design of this study and laboratory techniques. Thanks to the personnel of the Chemistry Unit at Sisal (Faculty of Chemistry, UNAM), and the Primary Production Laboratory at CINVESTAV Merida for their help with analyses of samples. We also thank the CONANP and PRONATURA Peninsula de Yucatan for logistical support; people who contributed to field-work including tourist service providers and volunteers. FGM thanks to Instituto Politecnico Nacional for fellowships (EDI, COFAA). This research was funded by Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia (FOMIX-Yucatán 10889) and the project MEX-US (University of California-CONACYT): “Determination of movement, habitat use, filtration mechanics and diet/food preference of manta rays off the Yucatan peninsula”.

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Correspondence to Elsa Noreña-Barroso.

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Cárdenas-Palomo, N., Noreña-Barroso, E., Herrera-Silveira, J. et al. Feeding habits of the whale shark (Rhincodon typus) inferred by fatty acid profiles in the northern Mexican Caribbean. Environ Biol Fish 101, 1599–1612 (2018).

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  • Fatty acid analysis
  • Feeding ecology
  • Whale shark
  • Chondrichthyans
  • Elasmobranchs