Error and bias in size estimates of whale sharks: implications for understanding demography
Body size and age at maturity are indicative of the vulnerability of a species to extinction. However, they are both difficult to estimate for large animals that cannot be restrained for measurement. For very large species such as whale sharks, body size is commonly estimated visually, potentially resulting in the addition of errors and bias. Here, we investigate the errors and bias associated with total lengths of whale sharks estimated visually by comparing them with measurements collected using a stereo-video camera system at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia. Using linear mixed-effects models, we found that visual lengths were biased towards underestimation with increasing size of the shark. When using the stereo-video camera, the number of larger individuals that were possibly mature (or close to maturity) that were detected increased by approximately 10%. Mean lengths calculated by each method were, however, comparable (5.002 ± 1.194 and 6.128 ± 1.609 m, s.d.), confirming that the population at Ningaloo is mostly composed of immature sharks based on published lengths at maturity. We then collated data sets of total lengths sampled from aggregations of whale sharks worldwide between 1995 and 2013. Except for locations in the East Pacific where large females have been reported, these aggregations also largely consisted of juveniles (mean lengths less than 7 m). Sightings of the largest individuals were limited and occurred mostly prior to 2006. This result highlights the urgent need to locate and quantify the numbers of mature male and female whale sharks in order to ascertain the conservation status and ensure persistence of the species.