Animal Cognition

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 11–22

Experimental evidence for action imitation in killer whales (Orcinus orca)

  • José Z. Abramson
  • Victoria Hernández-Lloreda
  • Josep Call
  • Fernando Colmenares
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0546-2

Cite this article as:
Abramson, J.Z., Hernández-Lloreda, V., Call, J. et al. Anim Cogn (2013) 16: 11. doi:10.1007/s10071-012-0546-2


Comparative experimental studies of imitative learning have focused mainly on primates and birds. However, cetaceans are promising candidates to display imitative learning as they have evolved in socioecological settings that have selected for large brains, complex sociality, and coordinated predatory tactics. Here we tested imitative learning in killer whales, Orcinus orca. We used a ‘do-as-other-does’ paradigm in which 3 subjects witnessed a conspecific demonstrator’s performance that included 15 familiar and 4 novel behaviours. The three subjects (1) learned the copy command signal ‘Do that’ very quickly, that is, 20 trials on average; (2) copied 100 % of the demonstrator’s familiar and novel actions; (3) achieved full matches in the first attempt for 8–13 familiar behaviours (out of 15) and for the 2 novel behaviours (out of 2) in one subject; and (4) took no longer than 8 trials to accurately copy any familiar behaviour, and no longer than 16 trials to copy any novel behaviour. This study provides experimental evidence for body imitation, including production imitation, in killer whales that is comparable to that observed in dolphins tested under similar conditions. These findings suggest that imitative learning may underpin some of the group-specific traditions reported in killer whales in the field.


Social learning Imitation ‘Do-as-other-does’ test Animal culture Killer whales 

Supplementary material

Supplementary material 1 (MPG 6982 kb)

Supplementary material 2 (MPG 3894 kb)

Supplementary material 3 (MPG 5446 kb)

Supplementary material 4 (MPG 11137 kb)

Supplementary material 5 (MPG 5398 kb)

10071_2012_546_MOESM6_ESM.pdf (90 kb)
Supplementary material 6 (PDF 89 kb)
10071_2012_546_MOESM7_ESM.pdf (76 kb)
Supplementary material 7 (PDF 76 kb)

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • José Z. Abramson
    • 1
  • Victoria Hernández-Lloreda
    • 2
  • Josep Call
    • 3
  • Fernando Colmenares
    • 1
  1. 1.Grupo UCM de Estudio del Comportamiento Animal y Humano, Departamento de Psicobiología, Facultad de PsicologíaUniversidad Complutense de MadridMadridSpain
  2. 2.Grupo UCM de Estudio del Comportamiento Animal y Humano, Departamento de Metodología de las Ciencias del Comportamiento, Facultad de PsicologíaUniversidad Complutense de MadridMadridSpain
  3. 3.Department of Developmental and Comparative PsychologyMax-Plank Institute for Evolutionary AnthropologyLeipzigGermany

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