Being the biggest fish in the sea is no guarantee of a place at the top of the food chain, as evidenced by the discovery of two whale shark vertebrae in the stomach of a white shark. Aside from conjuring up awesome images of an epic battle between two of the ocean’s most impressive monsters, the finding also provides a fascinating new insight into the diet of great white sharks.
Known for their predatory prowess, observations indicate great whites typically feed on sea lions, seals, small whales and smaller sharks. Although, several reports of these razor-toothed beasts feasting on large whales have also surfaced down the years. The new finding, which is described in the journal Marine Biodiversity, provides evidence that white sharks are indeed prepared to gorge themselves on creatures far heftier than themselves.
The shark in question was originally caught in the 1960s at the Cheynes Beach Whaling Station in southwest Australia, where dead whales used to be stored prior to being processed for oil. Measuring 4.5 meters in length (15 feet), the animal was dissected shortly after being captured, at which point the centra – the disk-shaped part – of two whale shark vertebrae were discovered in its stomach.
These have remained at the Western Australian Museum for the past 50 years, and were only recently re-examined by researchers who identified them as belonging to a whale shark roughly 8.5 meters (28 feet) long. However, the scientists behind the new study note that it is not possible to determine where the encounter between the predator and its prey took place, and that they therefore “cannot confirm whether the white shark preyed on a living whale shark or whether it scavenged on a dead carcass.”
Whale sharks are the largest fish in the sea, and feed by filtering plankton and small fish out of the water. Amanda Nicholls/Shutterstock
Either way, this data should help marine biologists update their understanding of what white sharks eat – which, to date, remains something of a mystery. Speaking to New Scientist, study co-author Michael Newbrey explained that “as long as we’ve been studying white sharks, we still don’t have a handle on what their diet is.”
Great white sharks’ ability to hunt their prey is aided by an exceptionally acute sense of smell, as well as specialized organs that detect the minute electromagnetic fields produced by other animals. Also equipped with powerful jaws lined with around 300 serrated teeth, white sharks usually have little problem carrying out the dirty work of actually killing their captured prey – regardless of its size.
Whale sharks, meanwhile, are passive feeders, and catch their food simply by opening their enormous mouths and filtering plankton and small fish out of the water. Therefore, even if the whale shark was alive when attacked by the white shark, it’s unlikely there would have been much of a brawl.