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Song of my people: dialect differences among sympatric social groups of short-finned pilot whales in Hawai’i


In many social species, acoustic dialects are used to differentiate among social groups within a local population. These acoustic dialects and their corresponding social groups are often related to distinct foraging behaviors or spatial movement patterns, and it is possible that vocal repertoire variability is one of the proximate mechanisms driving or maintaining genetic and ecological diversity at a subspecies level in social species. Short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorynchus) inhabiting Hawaiian waters have a stable hierarchical social structure, with familial social units associating in larger social clusters within island-associated communities. In this study, we test the hypothesis that sympatric social groups of short-finned pilot whales have acoustically differentiated dialects, which may be used to maintain the social structure. We first examined call composition of social calls collected from photographically identified social clusters of short-finned pilot whales around the Main Hawaiian Islands, using a catalog of manually classified calls, and found that call composition differed among clusters. We then conducted ANOVA and support vector machine (SVM) learning analyses of the acoustic features of social calls. Social clusters were significantly differentiated in their acoustic features, and the SVM classification accuracy was 60%. These results indicate that vocal repertoire reflects social segregation in short-finned pilot whales and may be a driving mechanism of differentiation, potentially contributing to genetic diversity within populations. This suggests divergent acoustic population structure; however, the small sample size in this study decreases the ability to detect acoustic differences among groups. Additional sampling will improve our power to detect acoustic differences among social clusters of Hawaiian pilot whales and improve classification accuracy. The pattern described here highlights the importance of increasing the spatial and temporal resolution of conservation and management plans for this species, in order to conserve subpopulation genetic and social structure.

Significance statement

In some species, vocal repertoires differ among social groups or populations of a species that use the same habitat. These differences, called dialects, are thought to be important to maintaining segregation among groups of animals with overlapping distributions, and in some cases may increase intra-specific ecological or genetic variability. This study is the first to provide evidence that sympatric social clusters of short-finned pilot whales have different vocal repertoires, and that vocal repertoire within groups may change with behavioral context. In terrestrial (e.g., elephants) and marine (e.g., killer whales, sperm whales) species with similarly stable social hierarchies, where acoustic dialects, genetic diversity, and/or ecological variability are linked with social structure, anthropogenic stressors have precipitated rapid declines in abundance with slow or nonexistent recovery. Given the myriad threats faced by short-finned pilot whales in the Hawaiian Islands, including fisheries bycatch, military and commercial anthropogenic noise, and vessel strikes, understanding intra-population social structure and its links with genetic structure and ecological variability is imperative to the proper conservation and management of this species.

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We thank Daniel Webster (Cascadia Research Collective) and Max Kaplan (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) for their efforts in collecting the acoustic data used in this study. We appreciate the volunteer efforts of Sabrina Pawlek, Madelaine Xochi Perez, and Lisa Valtierra in manually tracing calls included in this study. We also thank Andrew Solow, who provided important insight for statistical analyses used in this study. Finally, we thank Lisa Levin, Bill Hodgkiss, James Fowler, Phil Morin, and Ron Burton for their valuable input in the analysis and interpretation of this study.


Funding for data collection was provided by grants from the Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center and Office of Naval Research, as well as Commander, Pacific Fleet. The SoundTrap was purchased with funding from the SIO/NSF IGERT fellowship program to AVC. DMON data collection was funded by the Office of Naval Research (award numbers: N000141110612 (TAM RWB) and N00014-15-1-2299 (MAR); Program Manager Michael J. Weise) and WHOI Marine Mammal Center and the Sawyer and Penzance Endowed Funds to TAM.

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Correspondence to Amy M. Van Cise.

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The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures performed in this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institution or practice at which the studies were conducted. These data were collected under NMFS permit #15530 to RWB and WHOI Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee approval (BI15245.00).

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Communicated by S. D. Twiss

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Van Cise, A.M., Mahaffy, S.D., Baird, R.W. et al. Song of my people: dialect differences among sympatric social groups of short-finned pilot whales in Hawai’i. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 72, 193 (2018).

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