Cultural evolution of killer whale calls: background, mechanisms and consequences

in Behaviour
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Cultural evolution is a powerful process shaping behavioural phenotypes of many species including our own. Killer whales are one of the species with relatively well-studied vocal culture. Pods have distinct dialects comprising a mix of unique and shared call types; calves adopt the call repertoire of their matriline through social learning. We review different aspects of killer whale acoustic communication to provide insights into the cultural transmission and gene-culture co-evolution processes that produce the extreme diversity of group and population repertoires. We argue that the cultural evolution of killer whale calls is not a random process driven by steady error accumulation alone: temporal change occurs at different speeds in different components of killer whale repertoires, and constraints in call structure and horizontal transmission often degrade the phylogenetic signal. We discuss the implications from bird song and human linguistic studies, and propose several hypotheses of killer whale dialect evolution.

Cultural evolution of killer whale calls: background, mechanisms and consequences

in Behaviour

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Figures

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    Examples of single-voiced (a) and two-voiced (b) killer whale calls. Spectrogram parameters: FFT size 1024, overlap 87.5%.

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    Syllabic structure of the I43 call type from Icelandic killer whales. The first syllable may vary in frequency from <2 kHz (l, low) to 2–4 kHz (m, medium) and >4 kHz (h, high). The h and l variants may occur simultaneously, yielding two-voiced sounds (I43 hlb in this figure). The second syllable appears in at least four forms (a–d) that occur in various combinations with variations of the first syllable. Spectrogram parameters: FFT size 1024, overlap 87.5%.

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    Variation in terminal components of calls of the NE Pacific Northern Resident population. Call types N4, N5 and N9 produced by matrilines of A1 pod have very short or almost absent terminal components, while the same three call types in matrilines of A5 pod possess well-developed terminal components. Spectrogram parameters: FFT size 1024, overlap 87.5%.

  • View in gallery

    The shortened versions of Kamchatkan killer whales K5 call: the spectrograms on the left are three subtypes of K5 call type from three different matrilinear units, while the spectrograms on the right are from K24 and K23 calls from the same units that are produced by the shortening of the central syllable. Spectrogram parameters: FFT size 1024, overlap 87.5%.

  • View in gallery

    Examples of call fusion. (a) calls from Kamchatkan killer whales: K12 including K10 as the last syllable; K10 separately; K7 including K10 as the first syllable; (b) calls from Alaskan killer whales: AKS05 call separately; AKS05 as a high-frequency syllable of AKS09. Spectrogram parameters: FFT size 1024, overlap 87.5%.

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