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The Great White Shark may be the most feared predator in the ocean, but the monsters of the deep are running scared of a new threat in the waters off South Africa.
Killer whales have been hunting Great Whites because the shark’s oil-rich liver is a delicacy to the orca.
Marine biologists first realised that there was an upheaval in the ocean ecosystem when the carcasses of four great whites were found washed up on the South African coast near Gansbaai, just over 60 miles east of Cape Town.
Each of the four sharks showed a massive wound on their underside – near where their livers would have been.
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Since 2017, when the first four were found, at least three more Great Whites have washed ashore with similar wounds, and many more are believed to have been lost in the ocean depths.
In a new study published in the African Journal of Marine Science,Alison Towner, a biologist from the Dyer Island conservation trust said researchers had never seen anything quite like it before. “[the sharks] had big gaping holes” she wrote.
She added that two male orcas, nicknamed Port and Starboard, seemed to be operating as a team to hunt the Great Whites.
“They work together and tear the shark open by the pectoral fins, ripping it open,” Towner said.
Perhaps understandably, the sharks have begun to avoid Port and Starboard’s territory: “What we seem to be witnessing is a large-scale avoidance, mirroring what we see used by wild dogs in the Serengeti in Tanzania, in response to increased lion presence,” she said.
She said that the change in the sharks’ behaviour was already having an impact on the local ecosystem, with smaller predators such as the bronze whaler shark moving in to capitalise on the Great Whites’ absence.
The newcomer, too, have become food for the orcas: “It has triggered the emergence of a new mesopredator to the area, the Bronze Whaler Shark – which is known to be eaten by the Great White Shark"
"These Bronze Whalers are also being attacked by the Orcas too, who are indicating a level of experience and skill in hunting large sharks,” Towner added.
The exact reason for the change in the orcas’ behaviour is not yet clear.
But with the new pressure adding to other hazards for the Great Whites, including shark fishing and anti-shark nets in KwaZulu Natal the greatest predator in the sea could soon be facing a threat it cannot survive.
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