Trinity study finds basking sharks can jump out of water faster and higher than previously thought

Trinity zoologists made the discover using video analysis and data recording devices

Trinity marine biologists, in collaboration with marine biologists from Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), have discovered that basking sharks can jump as fast and as high out of water as great white sharks. Basking sharks, commonly found in the waters around Ireland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Scotland, were previously thought of as “slow and languid”. They are the second largest fish in the world.

The study, published in the journal Biology Letters, used video analysis and data recording devices to compare the vertical swimming speeds of the two shark species as soon as they left water.

At one point, the basking shark emerged to the surface of the water from a depth of 28 meters in just over nine seconds. It broke the water at an angle of 90 degrees and cleared the water for one second, reaching a peak height of 1.2 meters above the surface. A six-fold increase in tail beat frequency was observed with a top speed of approximately 5.1 m/s, a speed that is more than twice as fast as the average competitor in the Olympic men’s 50m freestyle swim.

Co-author of the study and assistant professor of zoology in Trinity Dr Nick Payne commented on the surprise discovery, saying: “The impressive turn of speed that we found basking sharks exhibit shows how much we are yet to learn about marine animals – even the largest, most conspicuous species have surprises in store, if we’re willing to look.”

QUB marine biologist Dr Jonathan Houghton also remarked on what the study demonstrates: “This finding does not mean that basking sharks are secretly fierce predators tearing round at high speed; they are still gentle giants munching away happily on zooplankton. It simply shows there is far more to these sharks than the huge swimming sieves we are so familiar with. It’s a bit like discovering cows are as fast as wolves (when you’re not looking).”

Biologists from University of Roehampton, University of Cape Town, the Irish Basking Shark Study Group and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity were also involved in the collaborative study.

Danielle Olavario

Danielle Olavario is a former SciTech Editor of Trinity News. She is a Microbiology graduate.