Animal Cognition

, Volume 22, Issue 5, pp 863–882 | Cite as

Evidence for discrimination between feeding sounds of familiar fish and unfamiliar mammal-eating killer whale ecotypes by long-finned pilot whales

  • Charlotte CuréEmail author
  • Saana Isojunno
  • Heike I. Vester
  • Fleur Visser
  • Machiel Oudejans
  • Nicoletta Biassoni
  • Mathilde Massenet
  • Lucie Barluet de Beauchesne
  • Paul J. Wensveen
  • Lise D. Sivle
  • Peter L. Tyack
  • Patrick J. O. Miller
Original Paper


Killer whales (KW) may be predators or competitors of other cetaceans. Since their foraging behavior and acoustics differ among populations (‘ecotypes’), we hypothesized that other cetaceans can eavesdrop on KW sounds and adjust their behavior according to the KW ecotype. We performed playback experiments on long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) in Norway using familiar fish-eating KW sounds (fKW) simulating a sympatric population that might compete for foraging areas, unfamiliar mammal-eating KW sounds (mKW) simulating a potential predator threat, and two control sounds. We assessed behavioral responses using animal-borne multi-sensor tags and surface visual observations. Pilot whales barely changed behavior to a broadband noise (CTRL−), whereas they were attracted and exhibited spyhops to fKW, mKW, and to a repeated-tonal upsweep signal (CTRL+). Whales never stopped nor started feeding in response to fKW, whereas they reduced or stopped foraging to mKW and CTRL+. Moreover, pilot whales joined other subgroups in response to fKW and CTRL+, whereas they tightened individual spacing within group and reduced time at surface in response to mKW. Typical active intimidation behavior displayed to fKW might be an antipredator strategy to a known low-risk ecotype or alternatively a way of securing the habitat exploited by a heterospecific sympatric population. Cessation of feeding and more cohesive approach to mKW playbacks might reflect an antipredator behavior towards an unknown KW ecotype of potentially higher risk. We conclude that pilot whales are able to acoustically discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar KW ecotypes, enabling them to adjust their behavior according to the perceived disturbance type.


Globicephala melas Acoustic playbacks Killer whale ecotypes Heterospecific sound discrimination Multi-sensor tags Cetacean behavioral responses 



Animal experiments were carried out with permission from the Norwegian Animal Research Authority (Permit nos. 2004/20607 and S-2007/61201). Protocols were approved by the Animal Welfare and Ethics Committee of the University of St Andrews (UK). We are grateful to the many researchers and vessel crew members who participated to conduct fieldwork and to collect data. We particularly thank our colleagues from the 3S project (Sea mammals, Sonar, Safety). We acknowledge Volker Deecke who organized fieldwork in SE Alaska during which the Dtag acoustic recordings of mammal-eating killer whale sounds were collected in collaboration with PJOM. Research funding was provided by the US Office of Naval Research, the DGA/TN (France), the UK Natural Environmental Research Council, and the Ministries of Defence of Norway and The Netherlands. PLT acknowledges funding received from the MASTS pooling initiative (The Marine Alliance for Science and Technology for Scotland). MASTS is funded by the Scottish Funding Council (Grant reference HR09011) and contributing institutions. CC acknowledges statistical support provided by the Multi-study OCean acoustics Human effects Analysis (MOCHA) project funded by the United States Office of Naval Research (Grant N00014-12-1-0204).

Supplementary material

10071_2019_1282_MOESM1_ESM.docx (1.8 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 1835 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charlotte Curé
    • 1
    Email author
  • Saana Isojunno
    • 2
  • Heike I. Vester
    • 3
  • Fleur Visser
    • 4
    • 5
    • 6
  • Machiel Oudejans
    • 6
  • Nicoletta Biassoni
    • 2
  • Mathilde Massenet
    • 1
  • Lucie Barluet de Beauchesne
    • 1
  • Paul J. Wensveen
    • 2
    • 7
  • Lise D. Sivle
    • 8
  • Peter L. Tyack
    • 2
  • Patrick J. O. Miller
    • 2
  1. 1.Cerema – Ifsttar, UMRAEStrasbourgFrance
  2. 2.Sea Mammal Research UnitUniversity of St. AndrewsSt. AndrewsUK
  3. 3.Ocean SoundsBerglenGermany
  4. 4.Department of Freshwater and Marine Ecology, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem DynamicsUniversity of AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  5. 5.Department of Coastal Systems, Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea ResearchUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  6. 6.Kelp Marine ResearchHoornThe Netherlands
  7. 7.Faculty of Life and Environmental SciencesUniversity of IcelandReykjavikIceland
  8. 8.Institute of Marine Research, IMRBergenNorway

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