Orcas seen hunting and killing rare whales for the first time


Rebecca Wellard

Killer whales off Australia have been seen killing and eating rare beaked whales – behavior never seen before.

Since 2014, a small team including Rebecca Wellard from Curtin University in Perth has been going out with commercial whale watching boats to study killer whales off the southern coast of Australia. On four occasions, they saw and photographed groups of up to 20 killer whales attacking solitary beaked whales.

The hunts lasted an hour or two. The orcas hunted the beaked whales and ultimately killed them by biting them and forcing them underwater to drown them. On two occasions they have been seen stripping carcasses of their skins, so it seems clear that these are predatory attacks.

The team has just published an article detailing their observations.

Little is known about the killer whales that live around Australia. But it has become clear that populations elsewhere in the world have their own distinct cultures and specialize in particular prey. Some feed on fish like herring, while others hunt mammals like seals, dolphins and calves of large whales.

The 2001 BBC documentary The Blue Planet featured heartbreaking footage of orcas chasing and eventually killing a gray calf despite the mother’s efforts to protect it.

Little is known about beaked whales. They are rare, difficult to spot on the surface and feed in deep water. The species that killer whales in Australia feed on are believed to be either young or female strap-toothed whales (Mesoplodon layardii).

Journal reference: PloS A, DOI: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0166670

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