Dolphins and sharks seem like natural adversaries. They live in the same places, are often similar in size, and often compete for the same foods. What’s more, we tend to think of dolphins as friendly toward humans and sharks as dangerous predators of humans. But are they evenly matched? It seems like a given that sharks can kill dolphins, but can a dolphin kill a shark?
Can a Dolphin Kill a Shark?
A single Bottlenose Dolphin is no match for a single Great White Shark if they went head to head, but they don’t. Big Sharks don’t really mess with dolphins, and dolphins only attack sharks in groups.
The question isn’t really that simple, though. There are thousands of shark species, and while some are enormous, others are tiny. Some species of shark are common prey items for dolphins.
Likewise there are many species of dolphins, some are small and some are pretty large. The largest dolphin, which is actually a toothed-whale, is the Orca (Killer Whale) and is bigger than a Great White Shark. Orcas are often referred to as the wolves of the sea and often feeds on Great Whites.
How Dolphins Fight Sharks
While the massive orcas can use their brute strength and sharp teeth to take on even the largest sharks, most dolphins have to use other methods. Dolphin snouts are built like battering rams, and that’s exactly how they’ll use them.
Dolphins will ram sharks at high speed, using their sturdy, bony snouts to cause massive internal injuries.They specifically target the sharks underbelly and gills, where they can do the most damage. The whole pod will coordinate their attacks so that the shark isn’t able to fight back effectively, and these attacks can quickly kill most sharks.
Strength in Numbers
That’s why dolphins don’t travel alone. Dolphin pods are tightly-knit family groups with intricate social structures and complex communication. Together, they can spot threats much more easily, and warn each other about predators nearby.
What’s more, if one member of the pod is attacked, the others will immediately come to its defense. While a lone dolphin is incredibly vulnerable, a lone shark surrounded by a pod of dolphins is usually doomed. The dolphins will attack the shark relentlessly, from all sides. Most sharks will quickly abandon the attack and try to escape.
How Sharks Respond to Dolphins
The largest shark species such as bull, tiger, and great white sharks will target individual dolphins as prey when they get the opportunity. These sharks are large enough and deadly enough that a lone dolphin doesn’t stand much chance. Unfortunately for the shark, lone dolphins are hard to find.
As long as dolphins are with their pod, they’re safe. Sharks are cautious around large groups of dolphins, and dolphin pods have been known to kill sharks unprovoked. Still, most dolphins prefer to avoid places where the shark population is high.
Orcas are, as usual, the exception to this rule. Instead, with orcas, it’s the sharks who avoid them and not the other way around. Places with high orca populations almost always have low shark populations. In fact, great white sharks have been recorded abandoning their normal hunting grounds while orcas are migrating through the area.
A lone dolphin, though, is at great risk if there are large sharks, especially tigers or great whites, nearby. They’re an ideal food for such predators, and on their own they’re very vulnerable to the ambush tactics that sharks use.
Dolphins vs Sharks
Admittedly, a pod of orcas hunting down sharks isn’t what most people are thinking about when they ask if a dolphin can kill a shark. So, what about species like the smaller, Bottlenose Dolphin? These are the animals that most people are thinking of when they talk about dolphins. Dolphins interact with sharks frequently, but rarely in times and places that humans can witness.
A shocking number of wild dolphins- as many as 70% of the adults in some places- have scars from shark bites. That suggests that sharks and dolphins are encountering each other a lot, and that sharks don’t always have the upper hand.
In fact, it’s not entirely clear that those bites are attempts to eat the dolphin, and they may actually be evidence of sharks defending themselves. Dolphins are much more aggressive animals than people realize, they’ll often target and kill other large marine predators in their territory just to get rid of the competition.
Orcas vs Sharks
Orcas are the largest dolphins, and they’re one of the most terrifying predators in the ocean. They’re massive, nearly 30 feet long and weighing over 6 tons- by contrast, the largest predatory shark, the Great White, rarely exceeds 15 feet (although 20 foot individuals have been recorded) and tops out and 2.5 tons.
Killer Whales are fearsome predators, and some of them seem to specialize in shark hunting. They do this by flipping the sharks onto their back, which immobilizes them. They’ll usually eat the shark’s liver, which is rich in nutrients, and leave the rest of the shark to sink to the bottom of the ocean.
Dolphins use their smarts and their social skills to overwhelm sharks, and they’re one of the few animals in the ocean that can truly go toe-to-toe, or fin-to-fin, with sharks and expect to win. It doesn’t always go their way, but dolphins can and do kill sharks.