A new study published Monday confirmed what scientists have long suspected – that orcas, also known as killer whales, hunt great white sharks.
A paper published in the Ecology Society of America’s “Ecology” journal describes the first confirmed observation of a pod of killer whales hunting a great white.
The paper is a follow-up to a drone video released in June, which shows five orcas chasing and mauling a large shark in Mossel Bay off South Africa.
“This behavior has never been witnessed in detail before, and certainly never from the air,” said Alison Towner, a scientist at Marine Dynamics Academy and lead author of the study.
“Killer whales are highly intelligent and social animals,” Simon Ellen, a marine mammal specialist and study co-author, added.
“Their group hunting methods make them incredibly effective predators.”
One of the whales captured in the video was later identified as Starboard, a particularly vicious male with a signature collapsed dorsal fin.
Starboard was previously tied to several shark carcasses that washed up in South Africa, four of which were missing their livers.
But while Starboard and other orcas have been known to attack other shark species, the study marked the first published evidence of an attack on a great white.
“We saw them kill a bronze whaler [copper shark] in 2019– but this new observation is really something else,” David Hurwitz, a whale-watching operator and study contributor, told Rhodes University.
While the study did not analyze the precise reasons behind the attack, it did note that sharks mostly disappeared from the Mossel Bay area for 45 days after the mauling.
The authors noted the sharks’ sudden absence as evidence of a “flight response” among great whites, which could have greater implications for further studies.
The study also cited the “wider reaching impacts” of cultural transmission between orcas, which could see the species becoming a greater threat to great whites in the future.
The “Ecology” paper marks another recent milestone for orcas, who made headlines earlier this week when they were captured on video sparring with two humpback whales in Washington state’s Salish Sea.
“We’re seeing more orcas and we’re seeing more humpbacks, so I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of these encounters of those two species together,” Erin Johns Gless, executive director of the Pacific Whale Watch Association said of the footage.