Shark predation tooth wear in a population of northeastern Pacific killer whales

Online publication date: January 06, 2011

Ford JKB, Ellis GM, Matkin CO, Wetklo MH, Barrett-Lennard LG, Withler RE


The cosmopolitan killer whale Orcinus orca feeds on a wide variety of prey types over its global range, but in at least some regions, genetically distinct and ecologically specialised lineages of killer whales coexist sympatrically. In coastal waters of the northeastern Pacific, 2 such lineages have been well described: the so-called ‘residents’ prey on teleost fish, especially salmonids and the other (‘transients’) on marine mammals. A third lineage in this region (‘offshores’) appears from chemical tracers to be ecologically distinct from residents and transients, but its diet is very poorly known. Here we describe 2 encounters with offshore killer whales during which multiple predation events involving sharks were observed. Using DNA analysis of tissue samples collected from these predation events, we identified the prey species as Pacific sleeper shark Somniosus pacificus and determined that a minimum of 16 individuals were consumed over the 2 encounters. This represents the first confirmed prey species of offshore killer whales based on field observations of foraging and the first record of any Somniosus species in the prey of Orcinus. We also show quantitatively that apical tooth wear is far greater in offshores than in resident and transient killer whales, and propose that such wear is at least in part due to abrasion from dermal denticles embedded in shark skin. Further studies are needed to determine whether offshore killer whales are as specialised ecologically as resident and transient killer whales, and whether sharks play a dominant role in their diet.

Aquatic Biology 11:213-224




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