Marine Biology

, Volume 162, Issue 4, pp 809–821 | Cite as

Prey-induced behavioural plasticity of herring-eating killer whales

  • Filipa I. P. Samarra
  • Patrick J. O. Miller
Original Paper


Behavioural plasticity of top marine predators to adapt to seasonal changes in the behaviour of their prey is little understood. Here, we used data from 16 multi-sensor archival tags attached to killer whales in 2005, 2006 and 2009 to evaluate whether and how their feeding behaviour varied according to seasonal life-stages (overwintering, feeding and spawning) of their herring prey. Feeding periods with tail slaps were consistently characterized by non-directional movement with the production of calls and echolocation clicks, but angular deviation in heading during feeding periods was lower during overwintering than spawning prey life-stages. Tail slaps were produced more often at depths >10 m in the feeding and spawning prey life-stages, while during overwintering, they often occurred at <10 m depth, indicating the depth of feeding changed with predicted positions of prey in the water column. Echolocation clicks were produced less often during feeding upon overwintering herring, suggesting that visual cues may be used more in winter during daytime due to better underwater visibility. Thus, while maintaining an encircling strategy to exploit the year-round anti-predator schooling behaviour of their herring prey, observed variations in details of killer whale feeding behaviour across prey life-stages are likely driven by the size and depth of herring schools, and the cost-benefit balance of bringing herring schools to the surface in different environmental contexts. However, observed variations do not appear strong enough to indicate reciprocal phenotypic plasticity by the herring prey which seem to rely primarily upon general anti-predator strategies.


Angular Deviation Killer Whale Behavioural Plasticity Clupea Harengus Marine Predator 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



We would like to thank all the people who participated in the various field seasons in Norway and Iceland for their help and efforts in collecting the data presented here. All data were collected as part of the 3S collaborative research program, and 2005 data were collected in collaboration with A. D. Shapiro. F. Plard and A. Podt helped with analysis of the Norway 2005 and 2009 acoustic data, respectively. Logistical support in Iceland was provided by Viking Tours and the Vestmannaeyjar Research Centre, particularly P. Jónsson. We would like to thank the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, particularly A. Bocconcelli, M.P. Johnson and P.L. Tyack for support with tagging and P. Wensveen for useful comments on the manuscript. Animal experiments were carried out under permits issued by the Norwegian Animal Research Authority (Permit No. 2004/20607 and S-2007/61201), in compliance with ethical use of animals in experimentation. Approval for field research in Iceland was granted by the Ministry of Fisheries. Ethics approval was granted by the Animal Welfare Ethics Committee reference PCD 60/2609 of the University of St. Andrews. This work was supported by a studentship from Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia (grant number SFRH/BD/30303/2006 to F.I.P.S.), a Russell Trust Award of the University of St Andrews and the Office of Naval Research. This manuscript was greatly improved by helpful comments from two anonymous reviewers.

Supplementary material

227_2015_2626_MOESM1_ESM.mp3 (79 kb)
Supplementary material 1: Acoustic recording of a killer whale tail slap when feeding upon herring in its feeding life-stage, as illustrated in Figure 5 (MP3 78 kb)
227_2015_2626_MOESM2_ESM.mp3 (79 kb)
Supplementary material 2: Acoustic recording of a killer whale tail slap when feeding upon herring in its overwintering life-stage, as illustrated in Figure 5 (MP3 78 kb)
227_2015_2626_MOESM3_ESM.mp3 (79 kb)
Supplementary material 3: Acoustic recording of a killer whale tail slap when feeding upon herring in its spawning life-stage, as illustrated in Figure 5 (MP3 78 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Filipa I. P. Samarra
    • 1
    • 2
  • Patrick J. O. Miller
    • 1
  1. 1.Sea Mammal Research Unit, Scottish Oceans InstituteUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsUK
  2. 2.Marine Research InstituteReykjavíkIceland

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