Great white sharks have been mysteriously disappearing from the coast of South Africa, and scientists may now know why.
A paper published Monday in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecology shows the first confirmed observation of a group of orcas, also known as killer whales, hunting a great white shark. The killing was captured on video in May at Hartenbos Beach, South Africa, a statement from the Ecological Society of America said.
“This behavior has never been witnessed in detail before, and certainly never from the air,” said lead author Alison Towner, a senior shark scientist at Marine Dynamics Academy in Gansbaai, South Africa.
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This newly observed behavior could significantly affect the ecosystem and local tourism.
Authors of the paper believe the footage suggests this behavior of killing great white sharks is spreading among orcas, highly intelligent and social marine mammals that hunt in groups. Previous studies found orcas spread new behaviors over time through cultural transmission.
Only two killer whales have been linked to hunting great white sharks in South Africa, but attacks have never been seen in action. In the video, five whales circle the shark and eat it. Researchers assume the same group was witnessed by another pilot just before the event attacking two sharks in the same area.
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A well-known orca called Starboard, who can be seen eating the shark's liver in the video, has been linked to a series of washed-up shark carcasses on South Africa’s beach.
The study provides new insight into how sharks are defending themselves against orcas.
The attack caused all but one great white shark in the area to flee for a period of time, according to survey data before and after the attack. Researchers first observed the flight response to killer whales in 2015 and 2017 in False Bay, South Africa.
“The sharks ultimately abandoned former key habitats, which has had significant knock-on effects for both the ecosystem and shark-related tourism,” said Dr. Alison Kock, South African National Parks shark expert and marine biologist.
The presence of killer whales caused sharks to use evasion strategies commonly seen in seals and turtles.
Camille Fine is a trending visual producer on USA TODAY's NOW team.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Orcas hunting great white sharks: Video captured for first time