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Imagine seeing almost 1,400 sharks gathered together in one area. That is a lot of sharks. So scientists wondered why they would all be bunched up in the same place. Turns out, it may have been a feeding frenzy.

Although most of us think of sharks as flesh-eating fish with large, sharp teeth, this big crowd of sharks spotted in 2013 were basking sharks.

Basking sharks are the second largest sharks on earth. (Whale sharks are the biggest.) They can grow 32 feet long and weigh up to 10,000 pounds. But instead of feeding on other fish, these big sharks swim slowly along with their huge mouths open to gather in very small ocean-dwelling animals, called zooplankton, that live near the water’s surface.

Scientists wrote in the “Journal of Fish Biology” recently that the big basking shark get-togethers occur in summer and fall. One reason that the animals may be all bunched up is that it is easier to swim behind another fish – less drag – when the big sharks have their mouths wide open. Those wide mouths can filter 2,000 gallons of water an hour. Their gills let the water back out but keep the food in.

Basking sharks aren’t considered to be a danger to humans, although they do have very rough skin that divers should avoid.

The sharks also have a very large liver. It apparently helps them float close to the surface where they feed. A big shark’s liver can contain as much as 100 gallons of oil. Fishermen who catch the shark sell the oil which is sometimes used in make-up.

Basking sharks migrate long distances and can be found along America’s Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Because the fish are slow growing and slow to mature, many countries are protecting basking sharks out of concern that their numbers are shrinking.

— Brett French, french@billingsgazette.com

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