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I noticed that although killer whales are clearly the top predator living in the present oceans, some of them appear to be very picky with their meals.

After spending hours hunting down a whale, pretty much the only thing they eat is the tongue. I'm not sure how that satisfies their hunger, especially considering how long and arduous the hunt took.

Then there are orcas hunting sharks and eating virtually only the liver. For such a dangerous prey, is such a delicacy worthwhile? I mean, what happens if they're starving after the hunt?

Any relevant comment will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

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    $\begingroup$ Could you add a link to these data. I know, e.g. that grizzlies eat only salmon heads (the fatty brain tissue) when salmon is plenty available. They just sit by the river bed and grab the exhausted, tired salmon straight out of the stream one by one; bite the head off and throw the rest away. They stop doing this when salmon is getting scarce and they start to eat the whole thing. I can imagine the same goes for other predators and humans too. During the "hongerwinter" (literally hunger winter) in '44-'45 during WWII, Dutch folks would eat anything, while now they can be pretty picky :) $\endgroup$
    – AliceD
    Aug 18, 2015 at 23:54
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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Biology.SE. Can you please link your sources? That would help $\endgroup$
    – Remi.b
    Aug 18, 2015 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ I've got to admit that most of it is memory, but Google gave me these results: learner.org/jnorth/tm/gwhale/EnemyOrca.html voices.nationalgeographic.com/2011/11/25/… pbs.org/wnet/nature/… knowledgenuts.com/2013/11/19/orcas-can-eat-great-white-sharks $\endgroup$
    – J.L.
    Aug 18, 2015 at 23:55
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    $\begingroup$ I really have no idea about this, but consider that orca's are very social and intelligent animals, they may hunt 'just for sport' $\endgroup$
    – Nicolai
    Jun 22, 2017 at 2:48

2 Answers 2

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They eat the tongue and sometimes lower jaw of larger whales because they are the easiest parts to eat. They are soft, unlike the rest of these whales’ bodies. I’ve heard a scientist compare an orca attempting to bite into a grey whale’s body to a human attempting to bite into a whole watermelon. The grey whale’s skin is very hard and thick, and it also has a very thick layer of dense blubber, if an orca tried to take a bite out of, let’s say, the back or side of a grey whale, they would basically only scratch the surface. So the obvious solution is the soft tissue of the lower jaw and tongue. Like someone also said before, the tongues are huge! I’ve heard a scientist say that the tongue of a California Grey Whale calf could feed a family of 5 adult orca!

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  • $\begingroup$ Can you please add some references to support your answer? $\endgroup$
    – WYSIWYG
    Jul 1, 2019 at 11:10
  • $\begingroup$ orca have only one set of teeth and i would guess culturally they are aware of the consequences of losing any of them or maybe simply it hurts their teeth to try to eat other parts of the shark -- I mean orca no doubt have nerves in their teeth as we and other mammals do. $\endgroup$
    – releseabe
    Aug 11, 2023 at 1:00
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Killer whales have a wide range of prey. They hunt in coordinated packs called pods. They are very organized on a hunt and each has a specific job before the kill.

Where the confusion might be coming from is that different pods have different habits. It is true that orcas have been witnessed eating only the tongue, but this is not the norm. They tend to eat the tongue first because it is muscle, rich in protein. In addition, they like the tongue, just as humans may like a good steak. However, in most cases they will consume as much of a whale (typically baleen, or blue whales) as they desire. In fact, whalers hate them because they will follow whaling ships and wait for the fishermen to harvest a whale. They will then rush in and gorge themselves. Another case of their only eating the tongue is when they are well fed. In this case, they can afford to be picky and may only eat the tongue, which on average is the size of an elephant. So, it's no small meal.

As for sharks, it's pretty much the same scenario. However, there are many cases of orcas eating only a great white shark's liver. The reason they target the liver (and they do it with surgical precision) is because it contains large amounts of a compound called squalene. Squalene is important for the synthesis of certain chemicals in the orca's body. They will also target the heart. The attacks on great whites is a more recent trend among killer whale pods. They are quick learners and once they feel the benefits of these organs, they will then focus on the sharks when their bodies tell them they need the squalene. Of course, they don't know that. They just feel better and stronger after consuming GWS organs.

There may be pods that tend to have these habits (outlined above) more than others. Resident pods (staying in one area) seem to be calmer and are not as likely to have the tongue activity, but it is the residents that kill the GWSes for their organs.

Transients are far more aggressive than residents. They are likened to pack wolves and will do some extremely cruel things (by human standards). These are the ones who are far more likely to eat only the tongue of a whale. It could be that since the shark organ habit has not been happening for very long, it's the residents who made the connection between health and these shark organs.

Another factor that could come into play is that scientists/marine biologists tend to believe that there are different species of killer whale. This may play a role in dietary habits as well.

Killer whales are the top (known) predator in the water. While a much larger whale, or GWS could potentially kill one, they are typically no match for a pod and will instead steer clear and only fight if no other alternative presents itself.

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    $\begingroup$ Can you cite some of that research? $\endgroup$
    – kmm
    Aug 11, 2017 at 13:04

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