Science | September 28, 2021 10:27 am

Scientists Just Learned What Can Scare a Killer Whale

Hint: it's not Jason Statham

Pilot whales
Essentially, the "who watches the watchmen" for killer whales.
Ed Dunens, CC BY 2.0

Call them killer whales or call them orcas; either way, they’re one of the most fearsome creatures found in the ocean. Given their size and their demeanor, you’d expect there to be very few animals out there that can unsettle a killer whale — and you’d be correct. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. And recently, researchers studying orcas off the coast of Iceland discovered something that changed the way they thought of killer whales.

These scientists uncovered evidence that pilot whales can thoroughly unsettle orcas. At The Atlantic, Marina Wang has more details on the findings of the Icelandic Orca Project. The article describes biologist Filipa Samarra observing a group of orcas when a number of pilot whales arrived on the scene — prompting the orcas to swim far away.

This wasn’t an isolated incident, either. The article notes that Samarra has seen similar interactions take place “about 20 times” since 2015. And it begs the question — what is it about pilot whales that left so many orcas unsettled? Of the two species, killer whales are both larger and more physically imposing, and yet this phenomenon has repeated itself again and again.

The scientists interviewed for the article suggest two possibilities. One is that the two species of whales were feuding over a food source — even though their preferred prey doesn’t really overlap. The other is what another scientists, Anna Selbmann, described as “antipredator mobbing behavior.” That is something that occurs in nature — but it doesn’t necessarily fit here either, as orcas don’t traditionally feed on pilot whales.

And so this particular underwater mystery endures for another day. Will it serve as the basis for an undersea horror movie at some point in the next few years? That seems entirely plausible.