When a whale dies, great white sharks are first in line for the body. A new study reveals more about the scavenging habits of these apex predators.
The study found that scavenging by great whites (Carcharodon carcharias) on whale carcasses follows a typical pattern. Within 24 hours the sharks begin to arrive, attracted by the smell of decomposing flesh. They first eat the whale's fluke (the two lobes at the end of the tail) before moving on to the nutritious blubber.
The sharks were selective in where they fed: one shark was seen nibbling its way down the carcass, while several were seen each tearing off a bite of blubber before regurgitating it and immediately taking another bite. One of the biggest sharks was seen swimming into the whale body to eat a near-term foetus. Even though around 40 great whites were seen at one carcass throughout the day, there was no fighting or frenzy behaviour. 3 sharks were observed eating belly-up with pectoral fins overlapping without incident, and no aggression was witnessed even when one shark accidentally bit another (leaving two teeth behind). There was a clear pecking order: big sharks got their choice of bites, smaller sharks scavenged free-floating blubber at a distance.
“By attracting many large white sharks together to scavenge, we suspect that the appearance of a whale carcass can play a role in shaping the behaviors, movements, and the ecosystem impacts of white sharks,” said Neil Hammerschlag, University of Miami and co-author. “These patterns may shed some light into the ecology of this often studied — yet still highly enigmatic — marine predator.”