Great White Sharks Are Scavengers – Will You Think Less Of Them Now?

greatwhiteGreat white sharks have a well-deserved reputation for being fearsome predators. But a new study in PLOS One shows that they’re also crafty scavengers.

Researchers from the University of Miami in Florida, led by Captain Chris Fallows of Apex Expeditions in South Africa, documented four scavenging events over 10 years in False Bay, South Africa. False Bay is home to a breeding site of cape fur seals, and those seals attract lots of great whites — seals are a favorite great white food. But, the scientists found, when when there’s a dead whale nearby, the great whites will abandon the hunt and instead munch on a meal of whale.

“Although rarely seen, we suspect that as white sharks mature, scavenging on whales becomes more prevalent and significant to these species than previously thought,” coauthor Neil Hammerschlag, director of UM’s R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, said in a statement.

The sharks mostly eat the whale’s blubber — the part with the biggest caloric punch — but they often eat the fluke first, the researchers observed. The biggest sharks get the best bites, with littler sharks having to settle for bits of blubber that float away.

In a way, this is not a surprising study. On land, many apex predators have been observed scavenging for meals, including bears, wolves, and lions. But what is notable, I think, is that we don’t think of any of those creatures as scavengers. And we probably wouldn’t think of great whites as scavengers either, even after reading this new study.

Animals have reputations, and it’s hard to convince people that they may be undeserved. Hyenas, for example, are supposed to be lowly scavengers, but in reality, they’re predators that kill 95 percent of what they eat. Disney’s Lion King did them an incredible disservice — hyenas are actually as effective as a predator as a lion or leopard.

Why do we look down on scavenging? While picking up roadkill from the side of the road or diving into a dumpster has — at least in my opinion — a level of danger involved that makes these actions seem ill-advised, we all scavenge at some level. We eat the leftovers of catered meetings that are left in the company break room, or pick up books left in the “free” pile outside someone’s home. In New York City, you can furnish all of your apartment just from scavenging other people’s discarded belongings.

Scavenging is an effective technique for an organism to supplement its diet (or its life in general, as seen with NYC apartments). Taking advantage of a free meal, one you don’t have to expend much energy to obtain, is a smart move. And we already know that great white sharks are smart, sophisticated animals. After all, it’s one of the things that makes them so scary.

Image of great white shark off South Africa courtesy of flickr user Bring on the Photog