Toothed whales are generally much smaller than baleen whales. However, the sperm whale is a toothed whale that can grow up to 18 metres long and weigh 50 tonnes! Does an animal of this size have predators? The answer is yes. The sperm whale has even developed a position to protect itself from attackers, the so-called “marguerite” formation: heads together and tails facing outwards. If there are any young or vulnerable individuals, they are positioned in the centre. This same technique is also used by land mammals such as elephants.
Various scientific publications have documented this defence technique. Notably, one study describes how 35 killer whales attacked a group of nine sperm whales, 130 km off the coast of California. Female killer whales, some with young, organized the attack. Males arrived toward the end for reinforcement. Whenever killer whales managed to oust one individual from the “marguerite”, one or two other sperm whales intervened and tried to escort it back into the formation. Despite these efforts, all the sperm whales were injured and one was killed.
The same situation was observed in the Gulf of Mexico. This time, sperm whales were being attacked by pilot whales. No animals were killed. Off the coast of Ecuador, interactions between pilot whales and sperm whales are frequent. Pilot whales sometimes behave aggressively at these encounters and the “marguerite” formation was observed in sperm whales on a few occasions. There is no evidence that pilot whales are a real threat to sperm whales. Nevertheless, the latter react to killer whale and pilot whale attacks in the same manner.
False killer whales and sharks can also prey on sperm whales. Scenes were documented in the Galapagos Islands and some sperm whales show shark bites.
On the other hand, sperm whales have other means of reacting. Head buts, tail slapping or violent jaw snapping are behaviours observed in situations that are potentially dangerous for them. Defence, intimidation or aggression?