Diversity in sound pressure levels and estimated active space of resident killer whale vocalizations

  • Patrick J. O. Miller
Original Paper


Signal source intensity and detection range, which integrates source intensity with propagation loss, background noise and receiver hearing abilities, are important characteristics of communication signals. Apparent source levels were calculated for 819 pulsed calls and 24 whistles produced by free-ranging resident killer whales by triangulating the angles-of-arrival of sounds on two beamforming arrays towed in series. Levels in the 1–20 kHz band ranged from 131 to 168 dB re 1 μPa at 1 m, with differences in the means of different sound classes (whistles: 140.2±4.1 dB; variable calls: 146.6±6.6 dB; stereotyped calls: 152.6±5.9 dB), and among stereotyped call types. Repertoire diversity carried through to estimates of active space, with “long-range” stereotyped calls all containing overlapping, independently-modulated high-frequency components (mean estimated active space of 10–16 km in sea state zero) and “short-range” sounds (5–9 km) included all stereotyped calls without a high-frequency component, whistles, and variable calls. Short-range sounds are reported to be more common during social and resting behaviors, while long-range stereotyped calls predominate in dispersed travel and foraging behaviors. These results suggest that variability in sound pressure levels may reflect diverse social and ecological functions of the acoustic repertoire of killer whales.


Communication Ecology Whistle Pulsed call Repertoire 



Source level


Received level


Signal-to-noise ratio


Transmission loss



Many thanks to Mark Johnson and WHOI’s acoustic systems group for assistance with equipment development and data analysis. Field assistance was provided by Erin Gentry, Miranda Buck, Leandra de Sousa, Dennis Schmidt, Nicoletta Biassoni, Morgan Heim, Michael Richlen, Mariya Sweetwyne, and Jodi Udd. Thanks also to David Bain, David Tyre, and Bill and Donna MacKay for help in the field. Darlene Ketten provided invaluable advice on the hearing model. Helpful comments on the manuscript were provided by Henrik Brumm, Peter Tyack, Peter Slater, David Bain, Nicoletta Biassoni, Rebecca Thomas and Vincent Janik. Funding was provided by WHOI’s Ocean Ventures Fund and Rinehart Coastal Research Center and a Royal Society fellowship. Observational research was conducted under a permit from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada, and complies with the “Principles of animal care”, publication No. 86-23, revised 1985 of the National Institute of Health.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Biology DepartmentWoods Hole Oceanographic InstitutionWoods HoleUSA
  2. 2.NERC Sea Mammal Research UnitUniversity of Saint AndrewsSt. Andrews, FifeUK

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