Maternal kinship and fisheries interaction influence killer whale social structure

Abstract

The primary prey of killer whales (Orcinus orca) in the Strait of Gibraltar is the bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus). All killer whales observed in this area hunt tuna by chasing individual fish until they become exhausted and can be overcome. However, a subset of pods also interact with a dropline tuna fishery which has developed since 1995. Here, we investigated the social structure within and among social units (pods). Our data suggested that social structure was shaped by maternal kinship, which appears to be a species-specific trait, but also by foraging behavior, which is less common at the intra-population level. At the start of the study, only one cohesive pod interacted with the fishery, which during the course of the study underwent fission into two socially differentiated pods. Social structure within these two fishery-interacting pods was more compact and homogenous with stronger associations between individuals than in the rest of the population. Three other pods were never seen interacting with the fishery, despite one of these pods being regularly sighted in the area of the fishery during the summer. Sociality can influence the spread of the novel foraging behaviors and may drive population fragmentation, which, in this example, is already a critically small community. Observations of social changes in relation to changes in foraging at the earliest stages of diversification in foraging behavior and social segregation may provide insights into the processes that ultimately result in the formation of socially isolated discrete ecotypes in killer whales.

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Acknowledgments

We would like to specially thank CIRCE volunteers and research assistants that helped in the field work of CIRCE and EBD-CSIC. This work was funded by Loro Parque Foundation, CEPSA, Ministerio de Medio Ambiente, Fundación Biodiversidad, LIFE+ Indemares (LIFE07NAT/E/000732) and LIFE “Conservación de Cetáceos y tortugas de Murcia y Andalucía” (LIFE02NAT/E/8610), and “Plan Nacional I+D+I ECOCET” (CGL2011-25543) of the Spanish “Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad.” RdS and JG were supported by the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, through the Severo Ochoa Programme for Centres of Excellence in R+D+I (SEV-2012-0262),” and also RdS by the “Subprograma Juan de la Cierva.” Thanks are also due to the IFAW for providing the software Logger 2000. We would also like to thank the referees that have highly improved the quality of this manuscript.

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The data were collected on wild, free-ranging killer whales. The research team had a special permit from the Spanish Ministry of Environment to approach the whales and enter the restricted area established by the Spanish Royal Decree for protection of cetaceans (R.D. 1727/2007). During the encounters with whales, efforts were made to photograph all members of the group of animals seen during a sighting and avoid disturbance. If whales displayed boat avoidance behavior, encounters were ended.

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Esteban, R., Verborgh, P., Gauffier, P. et al. Maternal kinship and fisheries interaction influence killer whale social structure. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 70, 111–122 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00265-015-2029-3

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Keywords

  • Social organization
  • Social dynamics
  • Killer whale
  • Orcinus orca
  • Foraging