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Tracked Whale Shark Confirms Connectivity

August 19, 2009--Tracked whale shark confirms connectivity between the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef and the northwestern Gulf of Mexico

Establishing marine protected areas is considered a means of stemming the decline in marine species and the habitats they need to survive. However, the biological connectivity of these areas, often created in isolation and located rather far apart, has not generally been considered or demonstrated across man-made boundaries.

As the world's largest fish, whale sharks are known to be long distance migrators, linking ocean basins together in the course of their travels. One particular whale shark has now been found to link the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef in the Western Caribbean with the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.

Whale shark swimming above the reef at Flower Garden Banks National  Marine Sanctuary

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In 2008, the Wildlife Conservation Society, working with local partners CONANP in Mexico, tagged a female whale shark with a coded acoustic tag in an area near Holbox and Isla Contoy on the tip of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula (where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea).

Recent data shows that in November 2008 this whale shark swam by a passive acoustic receiver located at Bright Bank, a coral capped salt dome located 14 miles east of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary and approximately 100 miles south of Louisiana.

Map of the Gulf of Mexico surrounded by the southern U.S., Mexico and Cuba.  A white line is drawn from the northeastern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula to Bright Bank, south of the Texas/Louisiana border.

Although researchers Dr. Rachel Graham of the Wildlife Conservation Society and Emma Hickerson of NOAA's Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary have long suspected connectivity between the two coral reef sites, the recently recorded movement confirms the linkage and potential importance of underwater features to large planktivorous fish.

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Expanding the acoustic array to additional banks and increasing the number of large megafauna tagged is an objective shared by Graham and Hickerson as part of a broad international megafauna tracking project called Marine Meganet. This will likely reveal additional links between these two distant coral reef habitats.

The sanctuary, which is currently reviewing its management plan, is considering requests to add nine additional banks to the sanctuary, including Bright Bank.

For more information about Dr. Graham's work tagging manta rays and whale sharks, please visit her Elasmobranch Research page on our web site.

To learn more about the sanctuary's involvement with acoustic tagging, please visit our Manta Ray Research page.

Click here to view video footage of whale sharks and other sharks within the sanctuary.

For further information, please contact the sanctuary Research Coordinator.

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Ruby brittle star in foreground, snaking across a spawning star coral in background.  Coral spawn looks like white BBs floating up from the coral.
National Marine Sanctuary logo - a stylized whale tail above waves