Animal Cognition

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 11–22 | Cite as

Experimental evidence for action imitation in killer whales (Orcinus orca)

  • José Z. AbramsonEmail author
  • Victoria Hernández-Lloreda
  • Josep Call
  • Fernando Colmenares
Original Paper


Comparative experimental studies of imitative learning have focused mainly on primates and birds. However, cetaceans are promising candidates to display imitative learning as they have evolved in socioecological settings that have selected for large brains, complex sociality, and coordinated predatory tactics. Here we tested imitative learning in killer whales, Orcinus orca. We used a ‘do-as-other-does’ paradigm in which 3 subjects witnessed a conspecific demonstrator’s performance that included 15 familiar and 4 novel behaviours. The three subjects (1) learned the copy command signal ‘Do that’ very quickly, that is, 20 trials on average; (2) copied 100 % of the demonstrator’s familiar and novel actions; (3) achieved full matches in the first attempt for 8–13 familiar behaviours (out of 15) and for the 2 novel behaviours (out of 2) in one subject; and (4) took no longer than 8 trials to accurately copy any familiar behaviour, and no longer than 16 trials to copy any novel behaviour. This study provides experimental evidence for body imitation, including production imitation, in killer whales that is comparable to that observed in dolphins tested under similar conditions. These findings suggest that imitative learning may underpin some of the group-specific traditions reported in killer whales in the field.


Social learning Imitation ‘Do-as-other-does’ test Animal culture Killer whales 



Research reported in this study was partly supported by a FPI studentship to José Z. Abramson, and by project grants CCG08-UCM/SAL-4007 (Universidad Complutense de Madrid y Comunidad de Madrid) to V. Hernández-Lloreda, and UCM- BSCH GR58/08 (Universidad Complutense de Madrid y Banco Santander Central Hispano) and D/018712/08 AECID (Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional y Desarrollo), Spain, to F. Colmenares. We are grateful to the directors of Parques Reunidos and the Marineland Aquarium of Antibes, Jesús Fernández, Jon Kershaw, and Manuel García Hartmann, for allowing us to conduct this research. Furthermore, we appreciate the work and especially thank head coach Lindsay Rubinacam, and all orca trainers team for their help and support. Special thanks go to Titaví for her artwork.

Conflict of interest

The authors declared that they had no conflicts of interest with respect to their authorship and/or the publication of this article.

Ethical standards

This research adhered to the legal requirements of the country (France) in which the work was carried out and all institutional guidelines.

Supplementary material

Supplementary material 1 (MPG 6982 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (MPG 3894 kb)

Supplementary material 3 (MPG 5446 kb)

Supplementary material 4 (MPG 11137 kb)

Supplementary material 5 (MPG 5398 kb)

10071_2012_546_MOESM6_ESM.pdf (90 kb)
Supplementary material 6 (PDF 89 kb)
10071_2012_546_MOESM7_ESM.pdf (76 kb)
Supplementary material 7 (PDF 76 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • José Z. Abramson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Victoria Hernández-Lloreda
    • 2
  • Josep Call
    • 3
  • Fernando Colmenares
    • 1
  1. 1.Grupo UCM de Estudio del Comportamiento Animal y Humano, Departamento de Psicobiología, Facultad de PsicologíaUniversidad Complutense de MadridMadridSpain
  2. 2.Grupo UCM de Estudio del Comportamiento Animal y Humano, Departamento de Metodología de las Ciencias del Comportamiento, Facultad de PsicologíaUniversidad Complutense de MadridMadridSpain
  3. 3.Department of Developmental and Comparative PsychologyMax-Plank Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany

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