Ocean-scale prediction of whale shark distribution

Ana Sequeira, Camille Mellin, David Rowat, Mark G. Meekan, Corey J. A. Bradshaw

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89 Citations (Scopus)
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Aim: Predicting distribution patterns of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus, Smith 1828) in the open ocean remains elusive owing to few pelagic records. We developed multivariate distribution models of seasonally variant whale shark distributions derived from tuna purse-seine fishery data. We tested the hypotheses that whale sharks use a narrow temperature range, are more abundant in productive waters and select sites closer to continents than the open ocean. 

Location: Indian Ocean. 

Methods: We compared a 17-year time series of observations of whale sharks associated with tuna purse-seine sets with chlorophyll a concentration and sea surface temperature data extracted from satellite images. Different sets of pseudo-absences based on random distributions, distance to shark locations and tuna catch were generated to account for spatiotemporal variation in sampling effort and probability of detection. We applied generalized linear, spatial mixed-effects and Maximum Entropy models to predict seasonal variation in habitat suitability and produced maps of distribution. 

Results: The saturated generalized linear models including bathymetric slope, depth, distance to shore, the quadratic of mean sea surface temperature, sea surface temperature variance and chlorophyll a had the highest relative statistical support, with the highest percent deviance explained when using random pseudo-absences with fixed effect-only models and the tuna pseudo-absences with mixed-effects models (e.g. 58% and 26% in autumn, respectively). Maximum Entropy results suggested that whale sharks responded mainly to variation in depth, chlorophyll a and temperature in all seasons. Bathymetric slope had only a minor influence on the presence. 

Main conclusions: Whale shark habitat suitability in the Indian Ocean is mainly correlated with spatial variation in sea surface temperature. The relative influence of this predictor provides a basis for predicting habitat suitability in the open ocean, possibly giving insights into the migratory behaviour of the world's largest fish. Our results also provide a baseline for temperature-dependent predictions of distributional changes in the future.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)504-518
Number of pages15
JournalDiversity and Distributions
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - May 2012
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


  • Rhincodon typus
  • sea surface temperature
  • species distribution model


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