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The Inertia

Killer whales didn’t get their name by being gentle hunters. They’re an apex predator, as are great white sharks. Neither animal has much to fear, but even the ones that occupy spots at the top of the ladder can drop a rung or two if another one has the ability to take them down. Such is the relationship between great white sharks and killer whales, also known as orcas. And in the astonishing footage seen here, an orca shows just how good at hunting it is in a display of its skills caught on camera in South Africa.

“This caught us off guard,” said shark biologist Dr. Alison Towner, who led a study looking at the event, which scientists are calling “unprecedented.”

Dr. Towner, who is from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, has been studying orcas and their behavior for several years, but this attack was new to her. It happened in 2023, and in it a single orca killed the shark and ate its liver in under two minutes.

Orcas seem to have a bit of a taste for liver, especially if it comes from a shark, and the coast of South Africa has a lot of sharks with livers. The year prior, in 2022, scientists shot footage of a pair of orcas working together in a pack to hunt great whites. Those orcas, named Port and Starboard, showed a real taste for shark livers.

“A great white shark is a nice, big concentration of food,” Marine mammal scientist Dr. Luke Rendell from the University of St Andrews said, “so it’s perhaps unsurprising that some populations [of orcas], where these sharks occur in sufficient numbers, have learned to exploit that.”

Starboard was the whale involved in the newest attack. “Scientists described how the orca gripped the left pectoral fin of a 2.5-meter-long juvenile shark and ‘thrust forward several times before eventually eviscerating it,'” reporters at the BBC wrote.

Although it’s certainly not anything new to see an orca preying on a great white, the incidents appear to be increasing. The reason for that isn’t exactly clear, but scientists do have a few theories.

Dr. Towner told BBC News that it was becoming evident that “human activities, like climate change and industrial fishing, are exerting significant pressures on our oceans.”

The relationships between apex predators is a delicate one, so the increase could be an indicator of a bigger issue. “Disruptions in the balance of apex predators can affect other species too,” explained Dr. Towner. “Endangered African penguins could face increased predation by cape fur seals [if the fur seals are not being eaten by] white sharks.”

Although there’s no way of knowing for sure that a solitary orca hasn’t hunted a great white before, the thing that really stands out to researchers is, according to Dr. Rendell, “how skillful these animals are as hunters.”


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