Basking sharks are the big, slow softies of the sea. Reaching up to 8 meters (26 feet) in length, these gentle giants cruise large stretches of the oceans simply living off plankton and the occasional small fish.
But in an unexpected twist, recent research suggests they’re not too dissimilar from their more ferocious cousin, the great white shark.
A new study has documented how basking sharks can launch out of water at a surprisingly powerful high velocity. In fact, the speed and power of their dramatic launch is comparable to a great white shark's.
As reported in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, researchers led by Queen’s University Belfast captured their findings on film in the waters off the coast of Ireland.
Although basking sharks typically travel at a fairly sluggish 3.7 kilometers (2.3 miles) per hour, they were able to reach speeds of up to 5 meters per second at the peak of their breach, not far off from the speed great whites, which can reach up to 10 meters per second. Considering basking sharks can weigh nearly double that of a large great white, that’s a hell of a lot of energy being expended.
There’s is something especially strange about this behavior, however. Great white sharks tend to breach when they are hunting seals and sea lions, shooting out of the water like a torpedo to snatch fast-moving prey on the water’s surface. Yet basking sharks are filter feeders, only capable of eating zooplankton, very small fish, and tiny crustaceans. So, why such an in-your-face display?
Well, no one is actually sure. Great whites are known to breach even when there is no prey around, which many scientists argue is an act of social communication. Perhaps it’s a similar deal with basking sharks. Alternatively, the researchers of this hypothesis suggest it could be used to dislodge pesky parasites, assert dominance, or even attract mates.
Either way, considering the huge amount of energy required to fling a 5,200-kilogram (11,400-pound) beast out of the water, it must be important.
“Whatever the purpose of this behavior, the similar breaching speeds of basking sharks and predatory lamnids [ie. great whites] questions our perception of the physiology of large filter-feeding fish and demonstrates that similar body designs can be well suited to very different lifestyles,” the study authors conclude.