First-year sperm whale calves echolocate and perform long, deep dives

  • Pernille TønnesenEmail author
  • Shane Gero
  • Michael Ladegaard
  • Mark Johnson
  • Peter T. Madsen
Original Article


Deep-diving sperm whales have a complex social structure and the largest brain of any animal, but very little is known about the ontogeny of their diving, foraging, echolocation, and communication skills. In large-brained terrestrial species, social skills develop earlier than locomotor abilities, but this may not be feasible for sperm whales, which require locomotor skills from birth to breathe, swim, and suckle. Here, we shed new light on the relative development of social and locomotor capabilities of a wild toothed whale. Sound and movement recording tags deployed on three first-year sperm whale calves for a total of 15 h revealed that these calves rarely produced codas for communication with adult whales, but likely tracked the ample passive acoustic cues emitted by clicking adults. The calves’ diving capabilities were well developed (maximum dive depth: 285, 337, and 662 m; maximum dive time: 11, 31, and 44 min) and they all produced clicks in a way that is consistent with echolocation. The calf performing the longest and deepest dives additionally emitted two echolocation buzzes, suggesting that it could have attempted to forage. Thus, sperm whale calves may supplement their milk diet with food caught independently at depth much earlier than previously believed. Contrary to terrestrial mammals, we propose that the maturation of locomotor, diving, and echolocation skills may be favored over investment in developing social communication skills at an early age in sperm whales.

Significance statement

The life of deep-diving toothed whales has up until recently been a mystery and the understanding of their behavior has generally been limited to surface observations and captive studies. Fortunately, the rapid development of animal-borne bio-logging devices has markedly improved our knowledge of the behavior of adult whales. The behavior and development of young calves are, however, still largely unknown. Sperm whale calves are challenged by being air-breathing marine mammals, which must learn to hunt prey at great depths. Using Dtags, we here show that sperm whale calves have much more pronounced diving capabilities than previously thought. The onset of independent foraging and foraging effort seems linked to the diving capability of the calf. These results show that young members of this otherwise slowly maturing species of apex predators do learn to dive and may hunt much earlier than previously believed.


Behavior Ontogeny Dive capability Echolocation Coda Sperm whale 



We thank Chief Fisheries Officer Mr. Sebastien and the Dominica Fisheries Division for their collaboration, as well as the staff at Al Dive, Anchorage Hotel, Dive Dominica, and W.E.T. Dominica for logistical support while in Dominica. This manuscript emanates from The Dominica Sperm Whale Project:, follow: @DomWhale and we thank all field assistants and R/V Balaena’s crew members for their help in the field. We also thank our two anonymous reviewers and the editors for their in-depth revisions, which have helped us improving our manuscript.


Field research was supported by an FNU large frame grant and a Villum grant to PTM and by a Carlsberg Foundation expedition grant and an FNU fellowship from the Danish Council for Independent Research supplemented by a Sapere Aude Research Talent Award to SG. PT supplemented funding through support from the Oticon Foundation, the Augustinus Foundation, the Danish Tennis Foundation, and the Danish Acoustical Society Foundation.

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical approval

The study complied with the laws of Dominica and was approved by Aarhus University IACUC, Denmark (approval # 843). The whales were tagged under permits # P-122/4W-2, P-40/2W-7, and RP16-04/88FIS-9 issued by the Chief Fisheries Officer Mr. Riviere Sebastien, Fisheries Department, Dominica.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Data availability

The data used in the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Zoophysiology, Department of BioscienceAarhus UniversityAarhusDenmark
  2. 2.Sea Mammal Research UnitUniversity of St. AndrewsScotlandUK
  3. 3.Aarhus Institute of Advanced StudiesAarhus CDenmark

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