A viral video showed two whales killing great white sharks by ripping out their livers.
The whales, named port and starboard, are well known among scientists, an expert said.
They and other killer whales have long hunted sharks for their organs, he said.
Footage of killer whales killing a great white shark by snapping its liver has captivated the internet recently.
But while the video – released ahead of a Discovery+ documentary – showed such a hunt in detail, an expert told Insider it was not unusual.
In fact, in the waters off South Africa, the strategy is so common that two killer whales have gained a reputation for organizing pods of killer whales to band together and hunt great whites.
Two male killer whales, named port and starboard, are likely to blame, said Michael Weiss, director of research at the Center for Whale Research.
The proof of their efforts is a series of hake daves washing up with no liver, after being attacked by killer whales with surgical precision.
Surgical attacks against fatty organs
Per Weiss, liver is a prime target for killer whales because they are fatty and provide a good amount of energy in exchange for the effort required to hunt them.
“Hail liver is extremely fatty, so there are a lot of calories in there,” he said.
There have been several reports documenting this behavior, such as near the Farallon Islands in Northern California. There, too, the killer whales attacked the sharks’ livers.
Previous footage had shown the orcas could tear the sharks apart by pulling on the fins around their stomachs, according to an article in the African Journal of Marine Science, which focused on sightings around South Africa.
“Their tongues and mouths are pretty dexterous, despite how big they are. They can do some pretty wild things,” Weiss said.
Port and starboard, celebrity shark killers
Two of the killer whales in the recordings are known to the researchers as port and starboard, by the tilting of their dorsal fins.
“They were a little less celebrities,” Weiss said.
The couple have their own Wikipedia page. Since they began hunting in the bays off the coast of South Africa, white shark sightings have dropped from about 200 per year to about zero, The Guardian reported in 2020.
Weiss said this was not because they killed every single shark, but because the sharks began to avoid the area.
It is not clear how the sharks have learned to avoid the killer whales. Sharks have limited social interaction, and it’s unlikely they would have learned from each other, Weiss said.
“My thought would be that it would probably be a scent thing. You smell dead shark in the water,” he said.
What is clear is that this has had a knock-on effect on the environment. The academic paper showed that another species, the bronze whaler shark, had taken dominance instead.
“The ability of two animals to reshape an ecosystem is absolutely fascinating,” Weiss said.
In search of delicacies
Weiss explains that it is not uncommon for killer whales to focus on one organ and leave the rest.
Footage has shown them eating the lips and tongues of other whales they have just killed and leaving the rest. Weiss says he’s also seen whales “extract fetuses from pregnant porpoises whole.”
“That’s kind of where their biggest money in terms of the soft, easily accessible tissue is,” he said.
“You have a limited amount of time to eat this thing. It’s going to sink, scavengers are going to start showing up,” he said.
Weiss said the sharks may be able to detect the most attractive organs using their sonar.
“The killer whales that I study, we think they are able to use echolocation to distinguish between different salmon species by detecting the size and location of the swim bladder,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if something happened” to sharks, he said.
Killer males with special skills
Port and starboard are both males. They like to hunt together, a rare occurrence in the killer whale world.
“Orcas in most populations are fairly matrilineal. Offspring stay with their mother for most or all of their lives,” Weiss said.
Weiss says it’s unclear where they might have picked up the behavior. Some whales specialize in shark hunting, but the other killer whales in the area do not seem to have learned this behavior.
“Most feeding strategies are passed down from mother to offspring,” he said.
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