Thanks to movies such as Jaws it’s widely assumed that great white sharks are the biggest bullies in the sea. But a study by researchers based at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California has revealed that the title should probably belong to orcas.
They found that great whites are so terrified of orcas that they turn tail and flee whenever they encounter them, often not returning to the site of the encounter for several months.
And it seems that they have good reason: not only have orcas been known to prey on great whites, they seem to have a terrifying Hannibal Lecter-like penchant for eating their livers by making an incision near their pectoral fins with surgical-like precision and then sucking out the organ like foie gras.
Also known as killer whales, orcas can grow to lengths of more than nine metres making them twice the size of all but the largest great whites.
In the study, the team used long-term electronic tagging devices to track the movements of great whites from 2007 to 2013 in a site off Southeast Farallon Island in the northeastern Pacific where the fish go to hunt juvenile elephant seals between April and May, and October and November. This area is also popular with visiting orcas who gather to hunt prey of their own in the autumn months. The team found that the great whites ate far fewer elephant seals in years in which killer whales were in the area at the same time.
Though no sharks were confirmed to be killed by orcas during the study, the team was able to confirm from their tracking data that the great whites quickly fled from areas patrolled by orcas and did not return for the remainder of the season.
Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.