The Whale Shark was first described and named by Andrew Smith in 1828, based on a specimen harpooned in Table Bay, South Africa. Historically, there have been many synonyms (alternative scientific names) for family, genus and species names.
The first scientific printing of the genus name appeared as Rincodon, despite Smith’s desired name of Rhineodon. However, in 1984 the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature suppressed previous generic variations in favor of genus name Rhincodon, and the family name Rhincodontidae.
Others generic names formerly used include Rhiniodon and Rhineodon and the family names Rhiodontidae and Rhineodontidae. Systematically, Rhincodontidae is placed in the order Orectolobiformes, which also includes families such as Ginglymostomatidae (nurse sharks) and Orectolobidae (wobbegongs). The interrelationships between these families are based on anatomical and morphological similarities.
Synonyms for the whale shark in past scientific literature include Rhinodon typicus Mïller & Henle 1839, Rhinodon typicus Smith 1845, Micristodus punctatus Gill 1865, and Rhinodon pentalineatus Kishinouye 1901.
The genus of the currently valid name Rhincodon typus is derived from the Greek words “rhyngchos” = rasp and “odous” = tooth. The species name is translated as type.