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Fight or flight: antipredator strategies of baleen whales


  • Editor: PC

J. K. B. Ford. E-mail:


  • 1The significance of killer whale Orcinus orca predation on baleen whales (Mysticeti) has been a topic of considerable discussion and debate in recent years. Discourse has been constrained by poor understanding of predator-prey dynamics, including the relative vulnerability of different mysticete species and age classes to killer whales and how these prey animals avoid predation. Here we provide an overview and analysis of predatory interactions between killer whales and mysticetes, with an emphasis on patterns of antipredator responses.
  • 2Responses of baleen whales to predatory advances and attacks by killer whales appear to fall into two distinct categories, which we term the fight and flight strategies. The fight strategy consists of active physical defence, including self-defence by single individuals, defence of calves by their mothers and coordinated defence by groups of whales. It is documented for five mysticetes: southern right whale Eubalaena australis, North Atlantic right whale Eubalaena glacialis, bowhead whale Balaena mysticetus, humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae and grey whale Eschrichtius robustus. The flight strategy consists of rapid (20–40 km/h) directional swimming away from killer whales and, if overtaken and attacked, individuals do little to defend themselves. This strategy is documented for six species in the genus Balaenoptera.
  • 3Many aspects of the life history, behaviour and morphology of mysticetes are consistent with their antipredator strategy, and we propose that evolution of these traits has been shaped by selection for reduced predation. Fight species tend to have robust body shapes and are slow but relatively manoeuvrable swimmers. They often calve or migrate in coastal areas where proximity to shallow water provides refuge and an advantage in defence. Most fight species have either callosities (rough and hardened patches of skin) or encrustations of barnacles on their bodies, which may serve (either primarily or secondarily) as weapons or armour for defence. Flight species have streamlined body shapes for high-speed swimming and they can sustain speeds necessary to outrun pursuing killer whales (>15–20 km/h). These species tend to favour pelagic habitats and calving grounds where prolonged escape sprints from killer whales are possible.
  • 4The rarity of observed successful attacks by killer whales on baleen whales, especially adults, may be an indication of the effectiveness of these antipredator strategies. Baleen whales likely offer low profitability to killer whales, relative to some other marine mammal prey. High-speed pursuit of flight species has a high energetic cost and a low probability of success while attacks on fight species can involve prolonged handling times and a risk of serious injury.